Will JP Nadda Come Out Of Shah’s Shadow?

The humiliating defeat suffered by the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Delhi assembly election has not proved to be an auspicious beginning for the party’s month-old president JP Nadda. Though it is true that it was Union Home Minister Amit Shah who led the party’s high-decibel campaign in Delhi, history books will record the result as BJP’s first electoral drubbing under Nadda’s stewardship.

Out of power for over two decades, the BJP was predictably desperate to take control in Delhi. But the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party proved to be a formidable opponent and the BJP fell by the wayside once again.

Well before Nadda took over as the BJP’s 11th president, it was widely acknowledged that he will not enjoy the same powers as his predecessor Amit Shah did but, nevertheless, would be called to take responsibility for the party’s poll defeats as well as organisational matters.

Nadda began his tenure with a disadvantage as it is difficult to live up to Shah’s larger-than-life image. Amit Shah, who served as BJP president for five years has easily been the most powerful party head in recent times. Known for his supreme organisational skills, Shah is chiefly responsible for the BJP’s nation-wide expansion, having built a vast network of party workers and put in place formidable election machinery. No doubt Modi’s personality, charisma and famed oratory drew in the crowds but there is no denying that Shah contributed equally to the string of electoral victories notched by the BJP over the last five years.

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Given that Shah has revamped the party organisation from scratch and placed his loyalists in key positions, there are serious doubts that the affable, low-key and smiling Nadda will be allowed functional autonomy. Will he be able to take independent decisions, will he constantly be looking over his shoulder, will he be allowed to appoint his own team or will he be a lame-duck party president? These are the questions doing the rounds in the BJP as there is all-round agreement that Shah will not relinquish his grip over the party organisation. This was evident in the run-up to the Delhi assembly polls as it was Shah and not Nadda who planned and led the party’s election campaign.

In fact, it is acknowledged that Nadda was chosen to head the BJP precisely because he is willing to play the second fiddle to Shah. Party leaders maintain that the new president is unlikely to make any major changes in the near future and that he will be consulting Shah before taking key decisions. For the moment, state party chiefs appointed by Shah have been re-elected, ensuring that the outgoing party president remains omnipresent.

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Though Nadda has inherited a far stronger party organisation as compared to his earlier predecessors, the new BJP president also faces a fair share of challenges. He has taken over as party chief at a time when the BJP scraped through in the Haryana assembly polls, failed to form a government in Maharashtra and was roundly defeated in Jharkhand. The party’s relations with its allies have come under strain while the ongoing protests against the new citizenship law, the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register have blotted the BJP’s copybook.

These developments have predictably came as a rude shock to the BJP leadership and its cadres who were convinced that the party was invincible, especially after it came to power for a second consecutive term last May with a massive mandate.

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Nadda’s first task has been to boost the morale of party workers and make them believe that the recent assembly poll results were a flash in the pan and that the BJP’s expansion plans are on course.

After Delhi, the Bihar election poses the next big challenge this year. The party’s ally, the Janata Dal (U), has upped the ante, meant primarily to mount pressure on the BJP for a larger share of seats in this year’s assembly elections. Realising that the BJP cannot afford to alienate its allies at this juncture, Amit Shah has already declared Nitish Kumar as the coalition’s chief ministerial candidate, which effectively puts the Janata Dal (U) in the driver’s seat. This has upset the BJP’s Bihar unit which has been pressing for a senior role in the state and is even demanding that the next chief minister should be from their party.          

The BJP has to necessarily treat its allies with kid gloves as they have been complaining  about the saffron party’s “big brother” attitude and that they are being taken for granted. While Shiv Sena has already parted company with the BJP, other alliance partners like the Lok Janshakti Party and the Shiromani Akali Dal have also questioned the BJP’s style of functioning.

The crucial West Bengal assembly election next year will also be held during Nadda’s tenure. The BJP has been working methodically on the ground in this state for the past several years now and has staked its prestige on dethroning Mamata Banerjee.

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But the Trinamool Congress chief is putting up a spirited fight, sending out a clear message to the BJP that it will not be so easy to oust her. Banerjee has declared war against the Modi government on the issues pertaining to the CAA-NRC-NPR and also activated her party cadres who have spread across the state to explain the implications of the Centre’s decision to the poor and illiterate. The BJP, on the other hand, is struggling to get across its message.

As in the case of Delhi, Shah can be expected to take charge of the Bihar and West Bengal assembly polls while Nadda will, at best, be a marginal player. Again it will be left to Shah to mollify the party’s allies as it is too sensitive and important a task to be handled by Nadda.

Like all political parties led by strong leaders, a BJP defeat will be seen as Nadda’s failure while a victory will be credited to Modi and Shah.

Chandrababu Naidu, Naveen Patnaik, Mamata Banerjee And Mayawati

Do Regional Parties Hold The Key?

The performance and preference of regional parties will be watched closely as they could play a crucial role in deciding who forms the next government in the event of poll results throwing a hung house

While the various pre-poll surveys for the upcoming Lok Sabha election have predicted that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance has an edge over its opponents, they have also forecast that “others” or regional parties not aligned with either the saffron party or the Congress, can win anywhere between 100 to 138 seats.

The performance of these regional parties needs to be watched closely as they could well play a crucial role in deciding who forms the next government if neither the BJP-led alliance nor the coalition stitched up by the Congress is unable to cross the half-way mark in the 543-member Lok Sabha. The regional parties do not have a wide-enough presence to form a government on their own but they are certainly in a position to play kingmaker in case of a hung Lok Sabha.

The “non-aligned” regional parties can be broadly clubbed into two categories. The Biju Janata Dal, led by Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, headed by Telangana chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao and YSR Congress Party’s Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh. All the three parties maintain they are equidistant from the two national parties but will have no qualms in going with the winner.

In fact, it is informally accepted by BJP leaders that these three parties will be amenable to a post-poll deal with them if their alliance falls short of the requisite numbers. From all accounts, the three parties are well-placed in their respective states and their leaders have not given any reason to believe that they will not be willing to do business with the BJP if it comes back to power.

The second category of regional parties includes Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, Akhilesh Singh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party, N Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party and Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. Their home states – Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh – collectively account for 147 Lok Sabha seats.

It is expected that these regional satraps will not align with the BJP and will instead drive a hard bargain with the Congress-led alliance after the elections. This will, of course, depend on the final tally and whether this grouping is in a position to form the government.

This was evident from Mamata Banerjee’s speech at an election rally in West Bengal’s Raiganj constituency on April 9 where she declared that the Congress will not be able to form a government on its own and that “the Rahul Gandhi-led party will have to seek help from others if it wants to form a government at the Centre”. The Trinamool chief is playing to win a maximum of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in her home state West Bengal so that she is in a position to call the shots after elections and, maybe, position herself as a Prime Ministerial candidate. To improve her acceptability outside West Bengal, Banerjee has directed that her party’s press conferences held in Delhi be conducted in Hindi. One such press meet was held on the eve of the first phase of elections on April 11.

All attention is currently focused on former bitter political rivals in UP, the BSP and the SP, who have now joined hands along with Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal to take on the BJP in the electorally crucial state. They have deliberately kept the Congress out of this alliance as they would like to maximize their gains in the election to be able to negotiate from a position of strength after the polls.

It has become imperative for this grand alliance (maha-gathbandhan) to succeed on the ground not only because the survival of the regional parties is at stake but also to weaken the BJP in Uttar Pradesh where the party bagged 71 of the 80 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Though the BSP failed to win a single seat and the SP was reduced to four seats thanks to the Modi wave, the two parties have posted good results in the past.  

A good showing by these regional forces this time will improve their political fortunes in Uttar Pradesh and, at the same time, give them an opportunity to decide who forms the next government at the Centre. Like Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati is also looking to play a larger national role. Though her party’s vote share has been declining, the BSP has fielded candidates across states to bump up her tally by garnering a sizeable number of Dalit votes. Mayawati made her intention clear when she told her party cadre recently that she may have decided to keep away from the electoral fray but this will not impede her chances of becoming Prime Minister as she has the option of contesting a Lok Sabha election within a period of six months.

Chandrababu Naidu is pragmatic enough to realise that he is not in the race for the Prime Minister’s post but he certainly has ambitions of playing a kingmaker at the Centre. After he parted company with the BJP over his demand to secure special status for Andhra Pradesh, Naidu has made consistent efforts to bring together opposition parties on a common platform. He played a similar role in 1996 when a set of regional parties formed the government at the Centre by cobbling together a coalition. The hurriedly forged United Front forced the Congress to lend it outside support in order to keep the BJP out.

Naidu, who was the convener of the United Front, has now predicted that 1996 will be repeated this year. In other words, he is convinced that regional forces will be at centre stage while the Congress will be the pivot of this grouping. The game plan of the regional parties is self-evident. They want to be in the driver’s seat and want the Congress to align with them but on their terms.

Regional parties have realized their potential ever since coalition politics became a recurring feature of Indian polity in the late eighties. Having a presence at the Centre gives the regional leaders a place at the high table, helps them push the interests of their respective states and even influence national policy.

For instance, Mamata Banerjee walked out of the Manmohan Singh government in protest against its policy to open up the retail sector for foreign direct investment. Similarly, the Trinamool chief did not allow India to sign the Teesta river water sharing treaty with Bangladesh on the ground that it did not favour West Bengal. Regional autonomy and preserving the country’s federal structure are the buzz words in a coalition era. But, most important, a role at the Centre also ensures personal protection for the regional satraps and their party members as many of them are guilty of misdemeanors and need necessary legal safeguards.