Alliances and defections show the BJP is clearly ahead

“BJP has given up sitting seats in Bihar and Jharkand to have alliances. The opposition parties are not ready to compromise even on non existing seats. Good luck to them,” former finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, once one of the senior-most leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but increasingly, one of the harshest critics of Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and the current dispensation in New Delhi, tweeted earlier this week.

Sinha’s frustration was obvious. Since the Karnataka election in the middle of last year, there has been a growing belief and realisation among opposition parties that the BJP, which looked invincible till then, could be defeated if its opponents came together. Karnataka chief minister HD Kumaraswamy’s swearing in was a coming out party of sorts for a so-called Mahagathbandhan (grand alliance).

Between then and the end of 2018, the prospects of an alliance were talked up by most opposition leaders. Almost all of them, though, were careful to avoid discussion of a prime ministerial candidate. This would be decided after the election, they said. And almost all of them maintained that partnerships would remain at the level of states — in effect, reducing the Lok Sabha election to a series of smaller battles.

The first, the absence of a prime ministerial candidate, was going to be a weakness, especially against the BJP, which, with Narendra Modi at the helm, was always going to make the contest a mano-e-mano one. The second — reducing the general election into a clutch of smaller state-level elections — appeared like a good strategy on paper. Since (and including) the Gujarat election in late 2017, the BJP has not won as many state elections as it would have liked to; and state-level alliances are always easier to strike than a national one.

That was the situation going into the December assembly elections. By then the BJP had already lost two allies — the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra and the Peoples Democratic Party in Jammu & Kashmir, and was having issues with several others, including the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab.

Then came the December assembly elections, in which the Congress wrested three key Hindi heartland states from the BJP and the momentum seemed to be even more with the opposition.

Two months on, the situation is different, and not just because national security has become a hot-button issue for most voters after the Pulwama terror strike. It is different because of two significant factors.

One, the BJP has sewed up alliances with almost 30 parties, big and small. Some of these alliances — such as the ones with the Shiv Sena, the Janata Dal (United) and the Akali Dal — are existing ones that have been strengthened and renewed. Others — such as those with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and a bunch of others in Tamil Nadu — are new. There may be still more alliances to come. The details show that the BJP has been, at best generous, and at worst, honest in deciding the number of seats each partner will contest.

The BJP’s alliance with a clutch of parties in India’s northeast, struck earlier this week, needs special mention. Since 2014, the BJP has expanded its presence in the region, forming smart alliances with local parties, but it appeared to have thrown everything away with its recent attempt to push the citizenship bill through Parliament. The law, which grants (and accelerates the granting of) citizenship to non-Muslim minorities from neighbouring countries raised hackles in the northeast where local people are perennially worried that outsiders will occupy their land and take away their livelihood. As recently as a month ago, many of the partnerships the BJP struck in the region between 2014 and 2018 appeared shaky. Yet, come mid-March, and the BJP has renewed almost all the alliances and is in a good position in a region that sends 25 representatives to Parliament.

Two, the BJP has engineered defections, some say close to a 100, from other parties over the past few months. A top-of-mind listing by Chanakya, of only the prominent leaders, came up with 25 leaders, most of whom have joined the BJP in the past month alone. That includes two Trinamool Congress members of Parliament in West Bengal, four Congress members of legislative assembly in Gujarat, a senior Congress leader (Tom Vadakkan) in Delhi, the son of the leader of opposition in the Maharashtra assembly, and former Biju Janata Dal MP, Jay Panda. It is likely many of these leaders will be fielded in a party that values what it calls winnability over all else. It is equally likely that at least some of them will win.

Meanwhile, the Congress continues to struggle with its alliances (the blow-hot-blow-cold drama in Delhi is a case in point, as is the delay in finalising an alliance with the Left Front in West Bengal). It could well be that the party’s recent electoral success is itself coming in the way of finalising them.

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First Published:
Mar 17, 2019 09:59 IST

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