Forget the federal front, let’s talk about the other coalition
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Forget the federal front, let’s talk about the other coalition

While alliances can be made or unmade rapidly in politics, it does seem as if the Congress has stolen a march over the BJP when it comes to convincing parties that were part of neither alliance in 2014 to be part of an anti-BJP one in 2019

columns Updated: Jun 10, 2018 08:19 IST
Hindustan Times
BJP state president Amit Shah with Parkash Singh Badal in Chandigarh, June 7(HT)

The past months have been dominated by news of the emerging united federal front against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). As Chanakya has observed previously, by being the dominant force in Indian politics since late 2013, and governing 20 states (directly or with allies), the BJP has become the party to beat. With elections less than a year away, it is understandable that opposition parties explore alliances to take on the might of the BJP. Several by-elections seem to have pinpointed a winning strategy — a united alliance against the BJP. And so, work is afoot to build just such a front.

There’s another coalition, though, that hasn’t been in the news much till this past week. That’s the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). This was a grouping of 18 parties in 2014, although the BJP’s sheer dominance has often made it seem there were fewer parties in it. The BJP won 282 of the 336 seats the alliance did. Indeed, six of the allies didn’t win a single parliamentary seat. Since then, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), which sent 16 members to Parliament in 2014, has split from the NDA.

Last week, the BJP suddenly seemed to remember it was part of a coalition too. Party president Amit Shah made the trek to Matoshree, the residence of Uddhav Thackeray, the head of the Shiv Sena, one of the BJP’s oldest allies. Partners in the Mumbai government, the Shiv Sena and the BJP are fractious allies. In recent months, the Shiv Sena has increased the pitch of its sniping attacks on the BJP, threatened to go it alone in 2019, and even fought the BJP in the recent election for the Palghar Lok Sabha constituency (where it came a creditable second, not too far behind its ally). Neither the BJP nor the Shiv Sena has been particularly forthcoming about what happened during the meeting. With 18 Lok Sabha seats, the Shiv Sena is the second largest constituent of the NDA — and definitely not an ally the BJP can choose to ignore.

A day after that meeting, Shah was off to Chandigarh to meet Prakash Singh Badal and Sukhbir Singh Badal of the Shiromani Akali Dal. This meeting ended well, and Badal Jr even issued a call to other allies to fall in line and be ready for the 2019 election. The same day, Patna witnessed a so-called NDA unity meeting which seemed anything but. Upendra Kushwaha, the leader of one of the NDA’s constituents, the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party didn’t attend the meeting. The other constituents of the NDA in Bihar, the Janata Dal (United) and the Lok Jan Shakti Party (of Ram Vilas Paswan) attended, but in recent days, the JD(U) has been vocal about the fact that it, not the BJP, is the senior member of the coalition in the state.

The spate of meetings with allies seems to suggest that the BJP is realising that it too will need partners in 2019, belying the Modi vs United Opposition narrative it has been subscribing to until now. Simple mathematics should have highlighted the speciousness of that narrative. In 2014, the NDA had a 38.8% vote share and won 336 seats; and the UPA, 23.3% vote share, which helped it win 59 seats. Other, non-NDA and non-UPA parties had a 37.9% vote share and won 148 seats.

The situation has changed a bit since 2014. While the TDP has exited the NDA, the Janata Dal (Secular) has become a partner of the Congress, and the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh have formed an alliance. It is likely that the two Uttar Pradesh parties, responsible for the BJP’s loss in the three recent Lok Sabha by-polls seats in the state, will be part of a larger alliance that also includes the Congress. The Trinamool Congress’ Mamata Banerjee and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi’s K Chandrashekar Rao have both indicated their desire to be part of a united opposition. None of these parties — the SP, BSP, TMC, and TRS — were part of the UPA in 2014.

While alliances can be made or unmade rapidly in politics, it does seem as if the Congress has stolen a march over the BJP when it comes to convincing parties that were part of neither alliance in 2014 to be part of an anti-BJP one in 2019.

The challenge for the BJP is to poach from the alliance opposing it, and convince so-called non-aligned parties to become its allies. The obvious candidates for this are the TDP (despite the current bad blood between the two parties), the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), and the YSR Congress Party. Together, these four parties won 82 seats in the 2014 parliamentary elections.

It may take some doing to get the TDP and the YSR Congress Party to be part of the same alliance. Still, the latter’s Jagan Reddy still believes the Congress did him out of his rightful legacy and is unlikely to partner with it. With assembly and parliamentary elections being held at the same time in Odisha, the BJP may have to give up its local ambitions in the interests of a national play if it wants to partner with the BJD. And in Tamil Nadu, the BJP’s ham-handed efforts last year to prop up the EPS-OPS-led AIADMK government has put off two other possible allies, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (which was once part of the NDA), and the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam led by TTV Dhinakaran, making the first its only option.

The current Lok Sabha has a long tail. There are 24 parties with between one and five representatives. At least another 26 parties have no representatives but won over 250,000 votes in the 2014 election, more than the winning margin in many constituencies. As the 2019 elections near, both the BJP and the opposition alliance will look for ways to co-opt these parties. There is strength in numbers.

First Published: Jun 09, 2018 16:07 IST