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Why BJP’s treatment of NDA allies could derail its Mission 350

Despite indications that it will not be pushed around, BJP needs allies in 2019. But its treatment to NDA partners could influence potential allies

opinion Updated: Sep 06, 2017 12:44 IST
Cabinet reshuffle,Narendra Modi,Nitish Kumar
(L to R): Union Cabinet ministers Mukhtar Abbas Naqavi and Dharmendra Pradhan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Ram Nath Kovind, Vice President Venkaiah Naidu, Union Cabinet ministers Piyush Goyal and Nirmala Sitharaman, after the reshuffle, Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi, September 3, 2017(Arvind Yadav/HT)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known to spring surprises and he has done it again in the Cabinet reshuffle.

As surprising as the widely-hailed elevation of Nirmala Sitharaman as the defence minister was the non-inclusion of the Janata Dal(U), or for that matter any other existing or new ally.

The other surprise was that the four former career bureaucrats who were inducted into the ministry were not given departments related to their specialisation. Hardeep S Puri, with his immense experience in the foreign policy domain, has been given urban affairs; and KJ Alphons with his expertise in urban matters got tourism.

As for allies, it is possible that Modi may still induct them, particularly the JD(U), in another expansion exercise, though he has given no such indication. Unless done soon, the exercise would be meaningless for the countdown to the general elections would begin in 15 months.

The media had written about two JD(U) leaders being included in the ministry. But Nitish Kumar disclosed that his party had neither been asked, nor was any offer discussed.

It stood to reason that the JD(U), which has formed a government with the BJP in Bihar, would enter a government led by the BJP at the Centre. That this did not happen has given a handle to Kumar’s detractors, including rival Lalu Prasad, to make snide remarks against the Bihar chief minister.

That Kumar, who once enjoyed a near-parity status with Modi, someone who could take him on in the future, cannot get his party’s entry into the Cabinet today, must add to his discomfiture. But then, Kumar consciously chose a limited role for himself, confined to Bihar, when he quit the ‘grand alliance’.

The BJP brass may calculate that Kumar — and for that matter Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray — has few options today. Kumar cannot go back to Prasad, just as it would be difficult for Thackeray to shake hands with the Congress. It is not just the JD(U) which is chafing against a perceived humiliation, Thackeray has also expressed his unhappiness at not being consulted or informed about the reshuffle.

The Shiv Sena’s angst against the BJP is nothing new, and the possibility of the BJP breaking with its oldest ally before the 2019 elections cannot be ruled out.

There were also strong rumours at one stage about the NCP — playing footsie with the BJP and remaining with the Opposition — joining the Cabinet. This would make sense only if the Sena were to pull out of the Maharashtra government and the NCP was needed to prop it up. Otherwise, the NCP joining the NDA would give strength to the Congress, for some of its base would gravitate towards the grand old party. The best case scenario for an ascendant BJP in Maharashtra is to keep the Congress and the NCP apart and have a four-cornered contest next time.

The continuing political flux in Tamil Nadu may explain why the AIADMK was not taken into the Cabinet, as once reported.

Given the BJP’s majority in the Lok Sabha, Modi is in a comfortable position vis-a-vis the allies. Unlike in the past, when the Congress yielded to regional parties’ ambitions in the states in order to get their support at the Centre, the BJP is acting tough, not giving up on its plans to widen its base in states. It has given enough indications that it will not be pushed around by allies.

And yet, politics is never static, and even though Modi’s popularity continues undimmed, the growing restiveness in sections today — Dalits, farmers, jobless youth — cannot be denied.

The allies’ unhappiness can have a bearing on the party’s ‘Mission 2019’. A ‘happy’ Kumar, for instance, can add value to the BJP not just in Bihar but also in eastern UP where there is a concentration of Kurmis. An ‘unhappy’ Kumar may not put his best foot forward in 2019 or 2020, and the stakes are higher for the BJP today than for Kumar.

The BJP’s ‘Mission 350’ may need allies. The treatment meted out to the present allies — summed up in the words of a JD(U) leader as a partnership with “izzat” or “beizzat” — could influence the decision-making of potential allies, who are neither in the NDA or UPA today.

Neerja Chowdhury is a senior journalist

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Sep 06, 2017 12:44 IST