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NDA partners restless amid BJP's relentless expansionism; Narendra Modi should keep window open for post-poll stitch-ups

BJP's differences with alliance partners have once again emerged to the fore with Chandrababu Naidu's decision to pull Telugu Desam Party (TDP) ministers out of the NDA Cabinet over the 'Special Category Status' (SCS) dispute. While the BJP is at pains to insist that 14th Finance Committee recommendations have made the term 'special status' redundant and that the Centre is committed to provide Andhra Pradesh the appropriate monetary equivalent, Chief Minister Naidu has framed the issue within the paradigm of "regional sentiment" and has called time on the TDP-BJP alliance.

It is not hard to see what Naidu is after. Squeezed out of space by Jagan Mohan Reddy — who has made the SCS issue an emotive one and is steadily reaping political dividends — the chief minister is making a desperate gambit to fashion himself as the challenger instead of the incumbent, and if push comes to shove, keeping open the possibility of going it alone in 2019.

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reuters

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reuters

Naidu's calculation is that by severing ties with the BJP just ahead of Lok Sabha elections, he will able to rid himself of the controversy surrounding the SCS issue and transfer the toxicity to his erstwhile alliance partner. In the interim, he will keep posing and posturing for special status (just short of walking out of the national alliance) to ensure the best of both positions. If the cookie crumbles TDP's way in 2019, there's always the option of returning to the NDA fold.

Regardless of the regional spin-off that will play out over time among the TDP, BJP and YSR Congress, the SCS dispute brings into sharp focus BJP's apparent travails in performing the duties of coalition dharma as we chug towards general elections. The party's troubles with Shiv Sena is well documented. Allies groaning under the yoke of a dominant BJP and struggling for oxygen raises the imagery of an oppressive, unaccommodating force crushing Opposition and coalition partners alike in its quest for aggressive growth. The metaphor feeds the anxieties of allies and Opposition alike.

BJP under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah is perceived as a fundamentally different beast unlike the gentle creature of Atal Bihari Vajpayee years. The party's brute strength in Lok Sabha and Modi's courting of a 'strong leader' image have added to the perception.

Though this narrative of a "ruthless BJP" (as opposed to a "gentle BJP") unwilling to humour its allies has of late been reinforced, it might not be close to truth. BJP's 2014 mandate, among other things, broke the myth that India has irrevocably shifted from single-party rule to coalition era politics. The leader who fashioned such an overwhelming and norm-breaking win would naturally be perceived as "strong" and less susceptible to pressure from allies. For a polity used to fractured mandates and habituated in seeing leaders make political and ideological adjustments for power, Modi's strength is derived from his unassailable position.

Unlike Vajpayee, who needed to be flexible and accommodative of alliance partner's demands — even if those were unreasonable — Modi's political survival (in current tenure) is independent of coercion from allies. While it makes his allies 'appear weak', it conversely makes him 'look strong'. He doesn't even need to act to merit such an attribute.

So when Shiv Sena's Sanjay Raut says "BJP regards its allies as entities that it can use and throw. This tendency of theirs has become more prominent after 2014," his comments are indicative of the frustration that allies feel with BJP. On the one hand their political positioning (as in the case of Sena or TDP), voter base (as in the case of Akali Dal) and desire to be associated with a 'winning brand' lead them to stick to the coalition, they rue the lack of control in this power dynamic.

To go with this power imbalance, other factors also contribute to the unease among BJP's allies. Modi is not hostile to the idea of coalition politics, but not at the cost of compromising with his philosophy which rests on a theorem that "allies remain when our winnability is high, go away when it is not".

It gives us an idea about Modi's (and also Shah's) core belief which gives highest importance to party's vistaar (spread). It is here that the duo has altered BJP's DNA and placed it at odds with its allies. While Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani, as this Firstpost article point out, "were quite convinced of the party’s inability to grow in the south and had sought an alliance with regional groups, Modi and Shah outright reject any idea of such an affliction for the BJP. On the contrary, they believe in encouraging an organic and robust growth of the party."

Modi and Shah have introduced flexibility in BJP's core ideology, modified its approach to social projects, aggressively adopted new icons and made an audacious pitch to refashion the party as a pro-poor outfit that caters to a cross section of the electorate, away from its core set of Brahmin-Bania-trader voter base. Inevitably, as BJP's footprint has grown across the nation (either directly or indirectly the party now rules in 21 states, over 70 percent of the population), it has eaten into the base of its allies and made them restive. This anxiety drives, for instance, Shiv Sena's unrest which fears an erosion in its base.

BJP would be aware that the fight ahead will be very different. Weight of history will add to the headwinds it might face to go with the usual factors of voter fatigue and anti-incumbency. If it cannot manage pre-poll alliances, it must keep options open for post-poll coalitions. The conundrum is, if Modi falls short of majority in 2019, he might still be able to stitch up a coalition of allies, but will he be able to compromise with his philosophy?

Updated Date: Mar 11, 2018 21:25 PM

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