Ally trouble

Test for NDA

People gather to attend Prime Minister Narendra Modi's election rally in support of the BJP candidates, in Bhilwara, Rajasthan. PTI

From TDP in the south to PDP in the extreme north, the BJP has had a roller-coaster of a relationship with allies since it came to power at the Centre in 2014. At least five parties that were allies then have moved out of the NDA, and one — the JDU — had quit but is now back in the fold.

Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) is set to begin a two-day ‘Chintan Baithak’ on whether to remain in the NDA or leave. If Kushwaha decides to leave on December 6 (the anniversary of the Babri mosque demolition), he will be the second NDA ally in Bihar to do so. Former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi-led Hindustan Awam Morcha left the alliance last year, and has since joined the opposition alliance of Lalu Prasad’s RJD and Congress.

Kushwaha is also expected to join the same alliance and is likely to get to contest six Lok Sabha seats in the 2019 general elections. The BJP is not ready to give it more than two seats and seems to be in no mood to reach out to RLSP after Kushwaha’s pressure tactics of flaunting proximity with RJD.

Kushwaha had joined the NDA in 2014 a year after his mentor-turned bete noire Nitish Kumar had deserted the alliance in 2013. With Nitish returning to NDA in 2017 and recapturing prominence, Kushwaha’s discomfiture grew and his exit from the alliance was said to be only a matter of time.

While some fissures in the NDA in Bihar can be attributed to the local political rivalries among its allies, the Modi-led BJP is finding it difficult to retain old allies even while it is still in power. Contrast that with the fact that most of the 23 allies from the Vajpayee-Advani era had stuck with the BJP even when it was out of power for a decade, from 2004 to 2014.

Unlike the earlier NDA, which had conveners from non-BJP parties, like George Fernandes and Sharad Yadav from JDU, with the Modi-Shah BJP, the allies’ demand for a coordination committee and appointment of an NDA convener fell on deaf ears. It was a constant refrain of the allies in the days after Vajpayee passed away.

When the Modi-led BJP came to power in 2014, it had 29 allies. Soon, however, the BJP’s oldest ally, Shiv Sena, began to feel uncomfortable in the NDA. In a number of meetings in 2015 and 2016, the Sena demanded better coordination in the alliance. Its mood turned bitter in 2017, partly due to the competing Hindutva politics between the two in Maharashtra.

Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray’s renewed interest in the Ram temple issue bears testimony to it. Sena has declared that it will not contest the 2019 elections in alliance with the BJP.

Though Nitish Kumar’s JDU rejoined the NDA in 2017, it did not take kindly to the non-inclusion of any of its leaders in the Modi cabinet during the last reshuffle. The Shiv Sena, which, too, wanted more cabinet positions, was also unhappy on this count.

However, the first decisive break in the NDA ranks came when Chandrababu Naidu-led TDP walked out of the alliance when his state Andhra Pradesh was not granted special status. Naidu is now the latest mascot of opposition unity at the national level, trying to stitch up an anti-BJP coalition.  

In Kashmir it was the BJP that walked out of the alliance with Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP. Of course, the PDP has only one MP in the Lok Sabha, so the impact of severing that tie wasn’t big. When Naidu walked out of the NDA, it was with 16 party MPs.

The Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP) of Omprakash Rajbhar in Uttar Pradesh have also kept embarrassing the BJP from time to time. When petrol prices spiralled recently, the SBSP pointedly reminded the BJP that hike in fuel and onion prices had led to the fall of governments in the past. SBSP’s pinpricks have irked the BJP so much that Uttar Pradesh BJP president Mahendra Nath Pandey in November called Rajbhar a “necessary evil.” “Rajbhar’s bol-chaal (attitude and expression) is not right,” Pandey had said.

Raju Shetty’s Swabhimani Shetkari Sangatana in Maharashtra launched an agitation against the BJP government in Maharashtra last year before finally walking out of the NDA in August 2018, saying that “the arrogant BJP’s sun will set in 2019”.

The JDU and the Shiromani Akali Dal have flagged the need for “better coordination”. The SAD has rued that “regional parties that played a crucial role in the BJP’s victory in 2014 are now being ignored.”

Voices of disgruntlement have also been heard from the Asom Gana Parishad. Last week, AGP asked the BJP whether it wanted the alliance to continue or not after BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma attacked it over its opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill.

One reason that is making allies restive could be the BJP’s massive expansion since 2014. In the north east, it formed its first ever government in Assam in 2016 and two years later, it won in Tripura, having gobbled up the Congress-Trinamool Congress leadership in the state.

In Kerala, the BJP’s relations with ally Bharath Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS) had faced rough weather for months this year, till the Sabarimala protests brought them together again.

Aware that it is unlikely to repeat its 2014 performance in the next general elections in the Hindi-belt states, the BJP is targeting over 130 seats in other regions. That’s what is making its allies wary, even hostile, to the BJP.

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