Can BJP expand reach?

The exceptional performance of the BJP in the recently concluded assembly elections has further consolidated its position as the leading national party and will also boost its strength in the Rajya Sabha, where it is woefully short of numbers.

The strategy adopted by the BJP in these elections will, however, force its allies to rethink their future in the NDA. Some of the older allies joined the BJP when it was restricted to the Hindi heartland and the Congress was the only pan-Indian party.

But now, the balance of power has shifted in favour of BJP, which has become a Ladakh-to-Kanyakumari party. Consequently, BJP has decided to restructure/abandon “unfavourable” Atal-Advani era alliances, irrespective of short term losses. It expects allies to defer to it in national as well as state politics.

Shiv Sena’s experience in Maharashtra is not an exception. In Nagaland, BJP contested a bye-election against Naga Peoples’ Front (NPF) and stood second, an honour hitherto reserved for the Congress.

The NPF is part of the NDA and leads the state-level Democratic Alliance of Nagaland of which BJP is a founding member. In Punjab, Akali Dal is vulnerable after poor performance in the Lok Sabha election and an ill-conceived alliance with INLD in Haryana.

The impact of these elections will, however, not be limited to the NDA because the BJP is emerging as the main competitor of major regional parties across the country. The October elections should serve as a wakeup call for the regional parties that found solace in September bye-election results. But in the short-to-medium term, smaller regional parties stand to gain as evident from the generous seat sharing plans offered to them by the BJP in the Lok Sabha and assembly elections.

This helps the BJP claim moral high ground as a party sensitive to smaller parties and also extends its reach among smaller communities untouched by major parties. At this stage, two complementary questions need to be asked to assess the future of regional politics.

Can BJP successfully expand and become the colossus that the Congress was in the 1950s and 1980s? And, how will major regional parties respond to BJP’s further growth?

The first question needs elaboration. Can the BJP secure a two-thirds majority in the next Lok Sabha (more than 360 members) polls and an equally large majority in the indirectly elected Rajya Sabha (more than 160 members) to be able to amend the Constitution, even if within the bounds of the basic structure guarded by the Supreme Court? At present, the strength of NDA in the LS is 335, including BJP’s 282 MPs and Shiv Sena’s 18 MPs.

The corresponding figure for the RS is 57, including 43 members of the BJP and 3 of the Sena. So, even if the BJP captured the entire political space of the NDA, it will be far from the magic number. But the BJP has already reached its limits in the Hindi belt and Western India, which means, it has to make major inroads into eastern and southern India over the next few years.

So, as of now, it seems the BJP is not close to securing a super-majority in parliament in the near foreseeable future. The polity of today is much more fractured than it was in the 1950s and 1980s.

What are the options available to the regional parties facing a rising BJP in 2014? There are a number of possibilities. A regional party can choose to join the BJP as a junior partner.

But if even a close ideological ally like the Sena is finding it difficult to accept the second rung, this option will be more unpalatable to others. Furthermore, the left-of-the-centre regional parties, which draw significant support from religious minorities, will find it difficult to join the BJP’s bandwagon. The other option available to these parties is to build an alliance of regional parties.

Platform to unite

The alliance between the RJD and the JDU in Bihar has given hints to serve as a platform to unite regional parties. Yet another option is to build a grand alliance around the Congress, which will address the collective action problem by resolving the question of leadership. But that is unlikely in the near future given the deep crisis within the Congress for which the party has to find a non-biological solution. The Left Front, which until a few years ago, was the natural core of any non-BJP/Congress alliance, is similarly paralysed at the moment.

In light of the difficulties in building an anti-BJP alliance, it seems regional parties have little room for manoeuvre vis-a-vis BJP. Should we expect a fresh efflorescence of regionalism or community-based mobilisation across the country? That does not seem unlikely. If that happens, the present Union government will find itself hamstrung because the BJP and its parent organisation are prone to conflate regional assertions with national security threats.

They, in fact, go out of their way to cultivate a hardline image in this regard. But the regional parties will also find themselves constrained in their pursuit of regionalism or community-based mobilisation as a defence against BJP.

If they move to an extreme position, they will leave unattended the needs of the youth, whose bread-and-butter aspirations make them vulnerable to Modi’s developmentalist charm offensive. So, in the ultimate analysis, a moderate regional agenda coupled with a good record of its state government might be a regional party’s best defence against BJP, which is trying to fill in the vacuum left behind by the Congress.

(The writer is Assistant Professor of Economics, Azim Premji University, Bangalore)

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