Murmurs of dissent among its constituents roil the National Democratic Alliance. A diminished coalition in 2019 will bode ill for the BJP
Rumblings from the National Democratic Alliance’s junior partners could spell trouble for the BJP in the 2019 elections
ON JANUARY 12, ANDHRA Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu had an appointment with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Delhi. Nothing unusual about the meeting as chief ministers call on the prime minister regularly. Besides, Naidu is the head of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), which is an integral part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. The Andhra Pradesh-based party is a majority partner in the state and a minority partner
in the central government.
Yet Naidu had to wait for over a year to get this appointment. This is in sharp contrast to the influence he wielded during the two tenures of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government between 1998 and 2004. Though the TDP then offered only outside support, the PMO had a hotline with the Andhra Pradesh chief minister and Naidu could get an audience with Vajpayee with just one phone call to the then Union minister Pramod Mahajan, whose primary role was to keep the lines of communication open with allies and troubleshoot whenever there was friction in the alliance. Not just Naidu, other allies too, such as Shiromani Akali Dal chief Parkash Singh Badal, kept Mahajan on speed dial. Nor was Mahajan the only point of contact in the BJP for the allies, there were others too, including Jaswant Singh, who held the finance, defence and external affairs portfolios at different points in time in the NDA government.
It is the absence of such interlocutors today that has perhaps resulted in serious fissures within the NDA family. In the last one month, two major constituents—the Shiv Sena and the TDP—have made public their displeasure with the BJP, while resentment is brewing in another major ally, the Janata Dal (United) or JD(U). On January 23, the Shiv Sena, the largest ally, with 18 MPs, announced that it would contest the 2019 general elections and assembly elections on its own, though it would remain a part of the central and Maharashtra governments till then. The very next day, Naidu said that the TDP, which is the second largest ally, with 16 members, would walk out of the NDA if the BJP did not want the alliance.
Naidu is peeved by the fact that the central government did not grant his state special category status which guarantees extraordinary financial grants from the Centre. Naidu has been demanding implementation of the promises made when Telangana was carved out of Andhra Pradesh, which includes the reimbursement of Rs 3,451 crore spent on the Polavaram project, financial support for building the new capital at Amaravati and a railway zone at Visakhapatnam. On February 1, he publicly expressed his displeasure over the Union budget, which “hardly made any allocations for Andhra Pradesh”.
Besides, the BJP, a minor ally of the TDP in the state, has not dissuaded its regional leaders, including D. Purandeswari, from being sharply critical of the Naidu government. What makes it even more embarrassing for the TDP chief is that she is also the elder sister of his wife Bhuvaneswari.
Tensions are growing between the BJP and the JD (U) on the issue of seat sharing in Bihar for 2019. JD(U) leader and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar even snubbed the BJP’s push for simultaneous elections by stating that his state would go to polls as scheduled in 2020. The communication gap came into play again when BJP president Amit Shah could not find time to meet Nitish in Delhi in January when the latter wanted to discuss the pre-poll equation of the two parties. When Naidu criticised the
Union budget, the BJP leader to reach out to him over the phone was Union home minister Rajnath Singh and not finance minister Arun Jaitley.
A day after Naidu expressed his displeasure, SAD leader Naresh Gujral exhorted the Modi government to follow the coalition dharma of the Vajpayee years. It’s a different matter that the Modi government does not need to emulate that NDA model. With 275 seats in this Lok Sabha—three more than the simple majority mark of 272—the BJP statistically doesn’t need any of the allies to run the government. In 1998, the BJP had only 182 seats in the lower house, forcing the Vajpayee government to rely heavily on the coalition partners. The 1999 elections gave the BJP exactly the same number in the Lok Sabha.
For some time now, there have been murmurs within several NDA constituents that the Lok Sabha majority and subsequent successes in the Uttar Pradesh and Assam elections have made the BJP behave like something of a “big brother”. So if Naidu could dictate terms in the Vajpayee era, he finds himself helpless under Modi, who chose to meet the Andhra Pradesh chief minister’s primary rival in the state, Jagan Mohan Reddy, once, and the YSR Congress chief’s close aide, Vijaya Sai Reddy, twice in the time he kept Naidu at bay.
In Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena, which has apprehensively watched the BJP hijack its Hindutva agenda, could not convince it to play second fiddle in the assembly elections in 2014 and eventually had to contest the polls separately only to be a partner in the BJP-led government later. “The BJP allied with the Shiv Sena in the name of Hindutva,” says Shiv Sena Rajya Sabha member Sanjay Raut. “We kept patient only for Hindutva. However, the BJP has, in the last three years, been demoralising the Shiv Sena.”
Yet, despite occasional rumblings, these allies had so far refrained from making their grievances public. When
the Andhra Pradesh unit of the BJP criticised the Naidu government on several occasions, the chief minister restrained his partymen from counterattacking the saffron party to avoid straining his equation with Modi. But the changing economic and political environment in the second half of 2017 has encouraged the allies to strike back. While the two bold but highly contentious economic decisions of the Modi government—demonetisation and the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax—slowed down the economy, rising unemployment and inflation fuelled by increasing fuel prices signalled the first significant dent in public mood for the Modi government. When the Congress restricted the BJP to double-digit numbers in the December 2017 assembly polls in Gujarat—home ground for Modi and Shah—the allies sniffed the first opportunity to corner the “invincible” duo.
The first indication of this assault came when the Shiv Sena, in its mouthpiece Saamna, published a couple of articles praising newly elected Congress president Rahul Gandhi. With the Lok Sabha elections just a year away, other alliance partners are also testing the waters to consolidate their position in the NDA.
The BJP’s relations with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in Jammu and Kashmir faced a major crisis last month over the FIR against an army major for the killing of two men in Shopian. State public works minister Naeem Akhtar, however, sought to play down the tussle. “Everyone—the state government, ministry of home affairs and the army is happily on the same page now,” he says.
In Bihar, the JD(U), which now has only two MPs, wants to field 15 candidates in the 40 Lok Sabha seats in the state, but the BJP is willing to yield only nine. In the ruling alliance in the state, the JD(U) is the senior partner with 71 seats in the 243-member assembly while the BJP has 52 seats. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the JD(U) had fielded 25 candidates against the BJP’s 15.
Such electoral calculations, says political analyst Manisha Priyam, are behind the public posturing of the allies. “The dissenting voices against the BJP from NDA constituents have more to do with the regional parties’ local compulsions than the lack of communication on BJP’s part,” she says. “Regional parties have to assert themselves and create grounds for survival, particularly when elections are near. And their only strategy for this is to project injustice from the Centre. So what if they are partners with the ruling party?”
And that is exactly what Naidu is bringing up in his state where he is on a sticky wicket as he struggles to keep promises, faces a restive electorate and cope with a dearth of funds. The TDP manages by putting the blame on BJP though it is not willing to burn bridges yet.
In Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena sees space for the party in the backdrop of growing dissent against the BJP, especially after Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis’s bungling of loan waivers to farmers and handling the anger among the Dalits. “Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray does not want to carry the badge of Fadnavis’s failure on his shoulder,” says a Shiv Sena leader. Another small ally from the state, the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, has also left the NDA on the issue of the BJP’s indifference towards farmers. In Goa, the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party and
UNLIKE PRAMOD MAHAJAN IN THE VAJPAYEE YEARS, THERE’S NO ONE PERSON TODAY THE ALLIES CAN REACH OUT TO
Goa Forward Party have threatened to walk out of the coalition if their demands are not heard.
There is clear uneasiness among the smaller NDA allies in Bihar. Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party, Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular) and Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party are apprehensive that after Nitish’s reentry into the NDA, the JD(U) will be accommodated in the seat distribution exercise for the Lok Sabha at their cost.
In Nagaland, the BJP’s 15-year-long alliance with Naga People’s Front snapped, with both parties failing to agree on seat distribution. In Christian-majority Meghalaya, the National People’s Party, which is part of the NDA government at the Centre and in Manipur, declined to enter into a pre-poll alliance with the BJP, in anticipation of a negative public mood. The BJP’s stand on banning cow slaughter had led to huge public outrage in the Northeastern state where eating beef is intrinsic to the region’s food habits.
In fact, the aggressive Hindutva politics of the saffron party has made several allies such as the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) see red. The Assam party has now decided to contest the panchayat elections scheduled this year on its own. “The BJP had promised it would fulfil the provisions of the Assam Accord which seeks to throw away all illegal immigrants in the state,” says AGP leader and former Assam chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta. “Now by amending the Citizenship Act, the BJP is trying to provide citizenship to illegal Hindu immigrants. Such religious bias has no place in our secular country.”
Though it has no real point of confrontation with the BJP, religious conflicts worry SAD too. The ally from Punjab is upset at the rising incidence of attacks on minorities, particularly Muslims. “I am disappointed in the government for not acting more firmly,” says party MP Naresh Gujral. “We are worried because we represent a minority—Sikhs. Minorities must feel safe and secure in the country.” Sounding a warning, he adds: “The days of singleparty dominance are over. The BJP, on its own, won’t get a majority in 2019.”
His words may well prove to be significant as political developments since the Gujarat assembly elections, reinforced by the byelection results in Rajasthan, show that the BJP may not enjoy the sweeping public sentiment it did in 2014. Adverse results in the assembly polls in Karnataka in March and in three other states—Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh—later this year, could trigger a reconfiguration of the coalition and open up the national political landscape to greater negotiation.
FADING CAMARADERIE? Naidu and Uddhav Thackeray with the BJP’s high command
ALL IN THE FAMILY Nitish (left) and SAD leaders Parkash Singh Badal and Sukhbir