One of the most quotable remarks in the aftermath of Bihar Assembly polls came from Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Raut. “If BJP lets Nitish become the chief minister, he should thank us (Sena)”. He was referring to his party’s snapping of ties with the BJP early this year and joining hands with the Congress and the Sharad Pawar-led NCP.
Nitish is back as CM, but the discomfort of his JD-U having secured only 43 seats is showing: at Monday’s oath-taking ceremony (November 16), he did not reportedly get up to greet his two BJP deputy CMs — Tarkishore Prasad and Renu Devi. In realpolitik, body language matters, and so does the sheer weight of compulsions. The BJP with 74 MLAs is an elder partner in the NDA setup, a fact duly recognized by Nitish. To persistent media queries on why Sushil Modi of the BJP has been dropped as his deputy, the newly sworn-in CM only sought to direct them at the BJP.
Politics of priorities
The BJP has come a long way – good news for the party is that its top leadership accords due recognition to its roller-coaster ride to power starting from the time it had two members in the Lok Sabha and it functioned from the two-room office in New Delhi around 36 years ago. Bad news, right now, for the BJP is none, though “difficult states” such as West Bengal and Tamil Nadu will be going to the polls in a few months from now.
A part dissection of how BJP has been able to deftly engage its allies and managed to up the ante for its adversaries as well as friends shows the strength of the cadre-based party.
For example, shortly after Sena left the NDA in bitterly tense circumstances, the BJP was offered, as if on a platter, Rajasthan, a state it had lost to the Congress in the late 2018, barely months before the general election the following year. Sachin Pilot, the then Deputy CM and state party chief, was harboured in party-ruled Haryana with his flock of over a dozen MLAs. An impression was created as if his joining the BJP – very much on the lines of Jyotiraditya Scindia — was imminent. In the month-long crisis spanning almost the entire July, Pilot had to walk back to the party, defrauded of his status as Deputy CM as well as state party chief.
The Congress then sent Pilot to Madhya Pradesh for a ‘loyalty test’ where he had to campaign against his friend Scindia in latter’s stronghold of Gwalior-Chambal region. Pilot’s role in Bihar campaigning was limited and, to a large degree, futile at a time when the Congress played a junior partner to an aggressive RJD. In neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, the Congress stood no chance.
All this – ever since Jyotiraditya’s exit from the Congress early this year – was a part of a larger BJP strategy to ‘shock’ its principal adversary the Congress and ‘awe’ the allies. In Madhya Pradesh, this paid off handsomely to the party in the by-elections – it bagged 19 of the 28 seats, facilitating a majority of its own.
And just as the strategy was bearing fruits, ‘bad news’ came from a state where the BJP has had almost nil presence – Punjab. The Shiromani Akali Dal walked out over the new agriculture reform laws. “The NDA has never abandoned anyone, the BJP has never let anybody go; we are always welcoming and accommodating,” is all BJP chief JP Nadda had to say, to no effect.
By allowing SAD to go, the BJP has signaled two things simultaneously: In Congress-ruled Punjab, where the polls are due in 2022, the state unit has been warned that it will have to show results on its own; and secondly, the SAD will have to weigh its future options very carefully. The Punjab BJP had been complacent riding piggyback on SAD over the last decade, ignoring the steady attrition of its largely Hindu support base.
In neighbouring Haryana, when the party failed to muster the majority mark in the 2019 polls, it almost conjured up a new ally – the Jannayak Janata Party (JPP) of Dushyant Chautala. The BJP took full advantage of dissensions within the Chautala clan. Dushyant with his flock of 10 MLAs is Deputy CM and is being “managed” well by the larger partner.
Challenge of plain-speak
“The problem with many of these people (BJP’s adversaries) is that they have not struggled on the ground; they have never been part of agitations, and therefore do not understand the real problems of the people. They sit in drawing rooms and decide slogans, and are surrounded by so-called master strategists. They have not struggled on the ground, and therefore the level of arrogance has not reduced,” BJP chief Nadda said in a recent interview.
The next big test of the party is in J&K, where District Development Council polls are due from December 1. It will be the first time when Central policies – including abrogation of Art 370 and Art 35-A provisions removing the special status of erstwhile state — will be put to test. The Gupkar Declaration partners under the umbrella of People’s Alliance led by Farooq Abdullah will be in the fray. A defeat will mean people’s rejection of BJP’s policies and may push the UT into turmoil.
With a staggering 303 seats in the Lok Sabha, the BJP does not need allies to survive. Yet it needs pliant partners to assert its all-India presence, especially in South, despite its fragile conquest of Karnataka. Tamil Nadu and Kerala are its biggest obstacles, where Dravidian parties, the Congress and Left have offered it no space. The ruling AIADMK in Tamil Nadu is a difficult partner of NDA, and knows that BJP needs it much more than it needs the Hindutva party. In Kerala, the Left alliance remains strong even though the UDF has suffered some erosion, not yet offering enough space to BJP.
In the East, the BJP’s grandstanding against a well-entrenched ruling Trinamool Congress and the eager-to-strike Left-Congress combination would need more than sabre-rattling. It has no allies in the state, and its extraordinary performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, where it bagged 18 of 42 seats, looks too distant for solace to the party. But is securing victory in the Assembly polls an immediate objective of the party in the absence of an ally?
For a party that has waited for three decades to come to power at the Centre, allies cannot be permanent friends, but they can’t be permanent enemies either. That’s why BJP’s hunt for allies — the partners which would ultimately remain in its awe or in a reflected glory – continues.