The two major parties fighting for the big prize are faced with the same dilemma though in differing degrees. If they want to expand their base in the different states and wrest Lok Sabha seats, they have to attack the primary political players in them. But in a context when no party is in a position to form the government on its own, they also need the support of precisely some of these parties after the polls. This was the reason why it took the Congress a long time to reconcile itself to the era of coalitions. It had a large national footprint, and it feared allying with regional parties at the Centre would erode its strength in those states. In recent weeks, the BJP’s PM candidate, Narendra Modi, has sharpened his attacks on the regional satraps. The gloves were off in West Bengal recently as he went for chief minister Mamata Banerjee. This was a departure from January, when despite pressure from the West Bengal BJP unit, he was restrained — and even seemed to be reaching out to the chief minister. In Tamil Nadu, despite the perception that they share good personal relations, Mr Modi and J Jayalalithaa have stepped up the rhetoric against each other. In Uttar Pradesh, the primary target of the BJP has been Mulayam Singh Yadav; in Bihar, its ire has been reserved primarily for chief minister Nitish Kumar and, in recent weeks, RJD chief Lalu Prasad. In Odisha, the BJP has targeted chief minister Naveen Patnaik.
In Tamil Nadu, the Congress has attacked both the AIADMK and DMK. In West Bengal, the party is locked in a battle with Ms Banerjee in a bid to retain its base and ensure that the Trinamool Congress does not absorb it. In Punjab, the Congress’ main battle is with the Shiromani Akali Dal, though the fact that the Akalis are in an alliance with the BJP gives it a more national colour.
In large swathes of the country, the fact is that the BJP and Congress are locked in battles not with each other but with a predominant, regional party. The rise of regional parties has been a steady feature of the polity. Newer social groups have become more assertive; with the deepening of democracy, there is fragmentation of the polity. At a time when the Congress is looking its weakest, many in the party are hoping that regional parties will outperform the BJP to such an extent that a ‘Third Front-backed by the Congress’ formation becomes viable. For Mr Modi, the challenge will be different. After a bitter battle, how will he reach out to a Banerjee, a Jayalalithaa, or a Patnaik if he needs the numbers? One thing is clear. A great deal of political management will go into soothing electoral wounds and bringing the necessary political outfits on board for the government, whosoever comes to power.