With a little over a year before the Lok Sabha election, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is faced with a fresh challenge: Disgruntlement of some of its partners. These allies have complained that the BJP has in the last three and half years of the NDA rule not taken them into confidence on several matters, ignored their key grievances, and generally taken them for granted. They have obliquely threatened to sever links; one, the Shiv Sena, has already announced that it would contest the 2019 parliamentary election on its own.
There are claims and counter-claims, and they need to be separated and dealt with accordingly, to understand the evolving situation. Neither are the specific grievances of the partners similar nor is the complaint always legitimate. Nonetheless, they must be addressed in appropriate ways. It is clear that the partners have chosen this moment to posture for three reasons: The Lok Sabha election, the coming Assembly elections, and the BJP’s underwhelming performance in the Gujarat Assembly poll and its defeats in the recent Rajasthan by-elections. The idea is to put pressure on the BJP just when the party is feeling the heat and is perhaps most amenable to listen to them.
The story of the Shiv Sena’s revolt is very different from the discontent of the others. The Sena has never been able to reconcile to the fact that it has been toppled by the BJP as the predominant party in Maharashtra. It contested the last Assembly poll on its own and to its dismay, was pushed to the second spot after the BJP. Although the BJP did not gain a simple majority, it had proved its point. While Government formation talks were on, the Shiv Sena found itself nearly left behind when the Nationalist Congress Party announced unconditional support to the BJP if the latter were to form the Government without Sena’s support. An alarmed Sena soon softened, and after some deliberations on either side, tied up with the BJP yet again. But the hurt remained.
Since then, the Sena has repeatedly not just taken pot-shots at the BJP but also ridiculed Prime Minister Narendra Modi on many occasions. Shiv Sena leaders have criticised policies and programmes of the BJP-led regime (of which it too is a part), and their utterances have much in common with that of the BJP’s rivals such as the Congress etc. On numerous occasions, senior BJP leaders in private expressed anger at the conduct and said that it was better to snap links with such an ‘ally’. Given that the Sena loses no opportunity to flay the Modi regime, it is not surprising that Sena members do not find much space in the Union Council of Ministers. BJP leaders in Maharashtra don’t seem to be rattled much by Sena’s announcement of separation because they believe the party can do better without such a ‘friend’. It is, therefore, unlikely, that the BJP will go beyond a point to appease the Shiv Sena.
The situation is different in the case of other allies who are upset: The Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Shiromani Akali Dal. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu, who heads the TDP, is angry that the Union Government has not given a special package to his State after its bifurcation. That anger deepened after the Union Budget. He said the Budget offering nothing to Andhra Pradesh and that the development signalled ‘war’ with the BJP. For now, though, he has decided to not pull out of the alliance, and talks have been initiated by the BJP to calm him down. Union Minister for Arun Jaitley pointed out that the Centre was committed to every assurance that had been laid down in the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act, and that funds to meet those promises have been flowing to the State. The issue is, however, more at the local level where BJP and TDP leaders seem to be having problems in working in tandem. As the bigger party nationally and a junior partner in Andhra Pradesh, it is for the BJP to soothe ruffled feathers.
The Akali Dal’s grievances have to do with being marginalised. The regional party’s representative Naresh Gujral has said that the BJP must treat its partners in a better manner. He cited the example that representatives of none of the regional partners had been offered governorships or lieutenant governorships. He also sided with Chandrababu Naidu, saying that the Centre had not honoured the commitments made to Andhra Pradesh. While on the Akali Dal, it must not be forgotten that the BJP was a junior partner in the Akali-BJP regime in Punjab and that the alliance lost to the Congress primarily because of the Akali Dal’s immense unpopularity.
There are also a couple of local and smaller outfits in Bihar which are said to be planning for life minus the NDA. They have Lalu Prasad’s RJD as a magnet to be drawn to. But their grievances are more of a parochial nature: They fear being squeezed out in seat distribution for the Lok Sabha election given that Nitish Kumar and his JD (U) are now back with the BJP and the two will naturally corner the lion’s share in ticket distribution.
Leaving aside the personal issues that these allies have, there is the larger question of electoral mathematics. The BJP had secured a majority on its own in 2014, and it could have formed a Government at the Centre without any ally. But it still preferred a coalition regime for two reasons: First, this enhanced the party’s image of political inclusivity. And second, it gave space for the BJP in States where it wasn’t that strong. Today, the BJP shares power with major regional parties in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra and Jammu & Kashmir. It is a given that the national party which most effectively stitches alliances will have the edge in 2019.
It is important for the BJP to manage Chandrababu Naidu. Andhra Pradesh is the only south Indian State where the BJP is in power (though as a junior partner). Since the party is seeking to enhance its footprint in the region — it will be tested in the Karnataka Assembly elections in less than three months from now — it does not make sense for the party to self-inflict wounds. Similarly, the Akali Dal is among the BJP’s oldest partners which backed it in hard times. It still remains relevant in Punjab and, therefore, must be handled with sensitivity.
But, all said, a valuable ally must be differentiated from a partner who has turned into a liability. Short-term and manageable losses should be acceptable in the larger interests of a State or the nation. The BJP must reach out to resolve the genuine grievance of genuine partners, but put its foot down when it comes to treacherous allies and not hesitate to say “goodbye’.
(The writer is a senior political commentator and public affairs analyst)