By Sanjoy Narayan
For quite a while after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) impressively won India’s 2014 parliamentary elections in what is universally acknowledged as a wave that was powered by Mr. Narendra Modi’s aggressive campaigning, it seemed unstoppable. Mr. Modi and his electioneering vow of attaining a “Congress-mukt Bharat” where the BJP would rid the Congress of power in every state also appeared to be within grasp. On the face of it, it can still seem so. Of the 29 Indian states, his party, on its own or with the help of allies, rules in 22. The Congress, on the other hand, rules in three, and recently in Karnataka it formed the government as a junior partner of a regional party, the Janata Dal Secular (JDS). But these numbers hide a telling trend.
That trend began with the state elections in Gujarat late last year. The BJP won those elections and retained power but with much less decisiveness than before: in the 182-seat Gujarat assembly, it got 16 seats less than it had in 2012, while rival Congress got 18 more than its previous tally. Since then it has suffered a series of setbacks in by-elections held in several states for parliamentary as well as assembly seats. In UP, it lost two prestigious Lok Sabha seats that were vacated by BJP chief minister Yogi Adityanath and his deputy; likewise it lost two assembly seats in Rajasthan; and in the most recent by polls held in May for four Lok Sabha and 10 assembly seats, it managed to win just two seats (one Lok Sabha and one assembly).
The Modi wave, which had once seemed invincible, is losing steam. Last month, a survey by media group ABP and the Centre for the Study of Development Societies (CSDS) of 15,859 respondents showed 47% felt that the Modi government did not deserve a second inning in the 2019 parliamentary elections and only 39% felt that it did. The survey threw up other findings too: a.) Minority communities (Muslims, Sikhs and Christians) are pronounced in their opposition to the Modi government and that even the Hindu majority is split in half between support and opposition; and b.) The BJP’s popularity is down by several percentage points.
Prior to the assembly elections in Gujarat most political analysts went by a conventional logic that ran as follows. To win elections, the Congress, whose footprint across Indian has drastically shrunk needs to forge, nurture and depend on alliances with other parties, notably the regional ones that hold sway in states. In Gujarat, it was able to gain seats because it allied with a combination of regional parties and activists; in Bihar when Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal United (JDU) were allies, it agreed to be a junior partner with the two (that is history now, though, after the JDU broke away and allied with the BJP). And the last two times that it came to power at the Centre was because at least a dozen parties came together to join its coalition, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Without those parties, the Congress could never have formed a government.
For the BJP, thus far it has been a different story. Although its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is a combine of 47 parties, BJP alone has 277 of the 334 seats that the NDA has of Lok Sabha’s 543 making it pretty much the all-powerful boss of the alliance, a clout that the Congress never had (on its own it had 145 seats in 2004; and 206 in 2009). Moreover, its currently configured DNA, BJP is inept in handling powerful allies. In Punjab, where it has partnered with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), and in Maharashtra where it runs the government with the Shiv Sena, fissures and frictions between the BJP and its allies have been chronic. So conventional logic suggested that, at least in the big states, the BJP probably fares better when it goes alone or tactically allies with only minor players.
Well, that logic may not hold good any longer. In the recent elections in Karnataka, the BJP on its own impressively won the largest number of seats but even that didn’t assure it power because it could forge no allies to speak of. Karnataka, along with four other southern states (Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Kerala) will be crucial for the BJP as it goes in for the next parliamentary elections. Those five states account for 130 Lok Sabha seats (for comparison’s sake: UP accounts for 80, Maharashtra 48, Bengal 42, and Bihar 40). Although it has “friendly” parties such as AIADMK and PMK in Tamil Nadu and YSR Congress Party in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, none of them is technically an ally in the south for the BJP. In fact, it recently lost a southern ally when Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP) left the NDA.
If the ABP-CSDS survey is directionally accurate and the outcome of several by polls considered, the BJP will need alliances if it wants to get the winning numbers. It needs them in the south but also elsewhere. In the east it has three big allies—the JDU and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), led by Ram Vilas Paswan, in Bihar; and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) in Assam. But in Bengal and Odisha where it has intention of spreading its footprint, it has no regional ally. The two powerful parties that rule there—Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) have an advantage in elections if the opposition vote is fragmented among many rather than consolidated towards an alliance.
Even the alliances the BJP has are not without their woes. In Bihar, the BJP wrested back power riding on the shoulders of the JDU after chief minister Nitish Kumar ditched the RJD but tension and resentment simmers within the new alliance. Further, the RJD, still smarting from being ousted from the government is believed to be trying to woo away local BJP/JDU allies such as Paswan’s LJP and the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP) led by Upendra Kushwaha.
In UP where two regional parties and once bitter foes, Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party (led by Mayawati), joined together against the BJP and foiled its attempts to win several by poll seats, tallying up Lok Sabha seats will be a challenge for the BJP. Even in those state polls where there have traditionally been straight fights between the BJP and Congress, there could be new challenges. As in Madhya Pradesh where although the BJP has been in power for three terms, the Congress is forging an alliance with the BSP and, therefore, could pose a heftier challenge. Madhya Pradesh goes to the polls later this year, as does Rajasthan. In both the incumbent BJP governments could face a siege.
But more importantly, with less than a year left of his term, Mr. Modi and his party’s president and chief election strategist, Mr. Amit Shah, are eyeing the next parliamentary elections. The string of outcomes in some state elections and many by-elections haven’t been as desired. No surprises then that Mr. Shah has been meeting leaders of his party’s allies across India, particularly the more difficult ones such as the Shiv Sena and the Shiromani Akali Dal. Next on the cards could be peace offerings that could come in the shape of more cabinet posts for representatives of non-BJP NDA constituents. All eyes are on Delhi.
Sanjoy Narayan tweets @sanjoynarayan