In its mindless pursuit of electoral conquest, the BJP seems to have overestimated its prowess; the overkill is now yielding diminishing returns. The defeats in crucial by-elections in the cow belt, growing unrest among its allies and the sudden exit of TDP from the National Democratic Alliance in a crucial election year are signs that the BJP is losing its sheen and Prime Minister Narendra Modi his brand value. While the TDP pulled out last week, others like the Shiv Sena, Akali Dal, Lok Janashakti Party helmed by Ramvilas Paswan, the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party of OBC leader Upendra Kushwaha, Bharat Dharma Jana Sena, an OBC outfit of Kerala’s Ezhava community, are sulking. A few days ago, Bihar-based Hindustanti Awam Morcha led by Mahadalit leader and former CM Jitan Ram Manjhi quit NDA to join RJD-Congress alliance. While Naidu has declared war on BJP, Shiv Sena has said that it will not have pre-poll pact with the saffron party and Paswan discovered that Congress is a more “inclusive” party than BJP. Paswan and Naidu are two uncanny weathercocks in contemporary Indian politics known for their perfectly timed moves.
While Gujarat dented brand Modi four months ago, Karnataka election results in May will tell if Modi will be able to sustain his cult figure status in the saffron phalanx. A poor show in Karnataka, and if followed by Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh later this year, may embolden the disenchanted allies to jump the ship. The TDP quit ostensibly on the grounds that the Centre rejected its demand for special status to Andhra, but there are other reasons as well for the divorce — BJP’s covert outreach to rival YSR-Congress and Naidu’s suspicion that the saffron party has been leveraging a friendly government in Hyderabad to outflank local parties. That, in fact, has been BJP’s pan-India strategy since 1998 when the first NDA government assumed office. Though BJP during Vajpayee era was less aggressive, under Modi-Shah dispensation, the party has become muscular and expansionist. Modi’s call for Congress and Communist-mukt India betrays intolerance and indecent haste to obliterate the Opposition. While the BJP and RSS have been working discretely to slay regionalism and sub-nationalism characterised by the state parties including BJP allies as they are antithetical to Sangh’s cultural nationalism agenda, Modi took the allies on board (despite BJP having brute majority in the Lok Sabha), as having friendly governments in states helped BJP grow unobtrusively and cast its ideological net wider.
BJP has been using allies as crutches especially in states like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Bihar, J&K and north-east and it’s annexing of state after state has unnerved local stakeholders. In Andhra, the BJP vote share shot up to 16 pc from zero two decades ago and its ambitious plan now is to emerge as an alternative to the TDP. In addition to UP, Maharashtra has been in BJP radar for long. Last three decades it has grown faster than Sena. From 12.80 pc votes in 1990 assembly polls, BJP vote share shot up to 27.81 pc in 2014 and bagged 122 assembly and 23 LS seats. Earlier the Congress and NCP were worried, now both the Shiv Sena and MNS are unnerved by BJP’s bid to usurp the entire right wing space in the state that sends 48 MPs to the Lok Sabha. That is why MNS chief Raj Thackeray, a staunch supporter of Modi till four years ago, has now called for a “Modi Mukt Bharat”.
In Bihar, BJP befriended JDU, and with a friendly Nitish Kumar at the helm, the RSS quietly worked at the grass-root level and expanded the Hindtuva footprint in the predominantly socialist state. Soon after Kumar quit NDA protesting Modi’s prime ministership, BJP leaders had said that plans were drawn up to increase party’s core vote share by 10 per cent in the next three years to unseat the Nitish government. But eventually, Kumar did a U-turn and returned to the saffron fold. The BJP benefited immensely from its 17 years of association with JDU. In 2014, it polled 30 pc votes winning 22 seats out of 29 LS seats it contested as against JDU’s two and 16 pc votes.
In Goa, the BJP allied with the MGP in 1994 and within a decade gobbled up MGP’s Hindu vote base. Similar tactics are now being employed in Kerala where BJP never had a friendly government making its electoral penetration difficult despite having the second highest RSS shakhas after UP. The demography with 45 pc minority population is also a road block. In the 2016 assembly elections, the BJP aligned with the BDJS and for first time opened its account in the state winning an assembly seat and increasing vote share to 15.3 pc from 4.75 pc a decade ago. Amidst soaring ties, the BDJS last week announced that it won’t back BJP in the upcoming Chengannur assembly by-election. In Tamil Nadu also the BJP vote share swelled after supping with Dravidian parties and changing partners alternately. In J&K, it aligned with National Conference two decades ago to get a foothold in the state but with little success, but BJP’s silent growth stunned analysts in 2014 when it bagged a whopping 25 of 37 assembly seats in Jammu and then entered into, what may be called, the most opportunistic alliance with the PDP.
Last year, senior RSS leaders had a meeting with culture ministers of BJP-ruled states with union culture minister in attention. The agenda was cultural nationalism and how to mitigate sub cultures like Marathis, Bengalis, Telugus, Tamils and so on that were impeding Hindutva project, a mission likely to sting the regional parties. The demand for a separate Lingayat religion in Karnataka, the call for Dravidanadu in Tamil Nadu and Naidu’s attempt to pit South India against North India are signs that cultural management in a complex country like India is far from easy.
Kay Benedict is an independent journalist.