India cannot afford a North-South divide

The southern states are unhappy with the terms of reference of the 15th Finance Commission, which is to decide the ‘distribution between the Union and the States of the net proceeds of taxes’. The body is mandated to take into account the 2011 census instead of the 1971 census. This, states in the south feel, will result in penalising them for keeping population growth stable — while rewarding the northern states. Their collective discontent on the issue comes at a time when the politics of at least three of the southern states is in a churn. In Karnataka, ahead of the elections, the Congress government has decided to use sub-nationalism — by emphasising the primacy of Kannada and declaring its own flag. In Andhra Pradesh, both regional parties, the TDP and the YSRCP, have taken strong positions against what they claim is the Centre’s betrayal of not granting Special Category Status to the state. In Tamil Nadu, political space has opened up with Jayalalithaa’s death and the entry of newer actors. This is happening in a context when there has been an increasing opposition — articulated both by parties and in social media — to what is seen as an effort by ‘northern parties’ to interfere in state politics and impose linguistic and cultural homogeneity. Take it all together and what you have is a disturbing picture of an emerging fault line between the North and the South.

A unified India is a non-negotiable principle. And that is why it is essential that the central government, state governments, and all parties address the divide instead of exacerbating it. Here is what Delhi needs to do. The Centre must send a message to all five southern states — Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Telangana — that it will ensure that they do not lose on funds because of progressive policies and better governance. But this is beyond a specific policy technicality. PM Narendra Modi should personally want to reach out to the citizens in the south to reassure them of his firm commitment to diversity.

The BJP in particular needs to do more to convey that it has evolved from being just a North Indian party. At the same time, here is what the southern governments and parties running them must do. The politics of resentment is easy to stoke — but a lot harder to manage. Tough negotiations or differences with the Centre must not be projected as a battle with the centre or north. Resisting and challenging the BJP politically is legitimate for any party, but this must not be accompanied with generating insecurities. India cannot afford a North-South divide.