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.

BJP Needs Allies More Than Ever Before

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]]>