The BJP’s problem in getting the Shiv Sena to sign up as a junior partner in Maharashtra is symptomatic of the kinds of challenges it will face as it tries to become the biggest political formation across India. Thus far, the Modi-Amit Shah duo’s strategy of playing tough with allies has paid off in spades, both in Maharashtra and Haryana. But this may not continue forever.
The Sena, which won 63 seats as against the BJP’s 122, has temporarily accepted its junior status, but it is unwilling to barter all its self-respect just to have a little share of power on the BJP’s terms. At the very least, the party will want the Deputy Chief Ministership, and a few key portfolios, even if it gets only a third of the berths in the Devendra Fadnavis ministry.
The tainted NCP would have been a far easier partner for the BJP to deal with, but for reasons of public perception, this alliance is not possible, not after Modi called the NCP the “Naturally Corrupt Party” during the campaign. This leaves the Sena as the only real alternative.
In fact, the Sena is finding new strength as a wounded tiger under the leadership of Uddhav Thackeray. At a recent trip to the Ekavira Temple in Lonavla with his 63 MLAs, Uddhav vowed to win 180 seats in the next assembly elections, according to The Indian Express.
The message for the BJP’s central leadership is simple: it has to develop different strategies for different states. In Maharashtra, it has to bend a bit to Uddhav’s will if it wants a stable government.
In states where it has had no presence, or a very minor presence so far (J&K, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, the north-east) , it can afford to go it alone and improve its overall clout; in states where it has had strong allies or equally strong rivals, it has to have a different strategy. In the former category, it has nothing to lose by going it alone; in the latter, it has much to lose.
In Maharashtra, the BJP did well in the October elections for three simple reasons: the Modi aura, anti-incumbency, and the splintering of the Congress-NCP alliance. These reasons will not remain valid forever. In a multi-horse race, the BJP can benefit with its Modi edge, but can this be taken for granted when opponents combine to defeat thim? In Bihar and Jharkhand, Congress-RJD-regional alliances are already forming against the BJP, and the next UP assembly election in 2017 could see a BSP-Congress-RLD seat sharing arrangement.
In Maharashtra, the Sena and the MNS could be together the next time. Some of the BJP’s smaller allies – like RPI, SWP, etc, which were left with almost no wins this time – might seek a better deal from the Sena if the BJP continues to play big brother.
Elsewhere, in states like Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, current allies (or non-enemies like Navin Patnaik’s BJD) will be nervously looking at whether the BJP will try to eat their lunch the next time. In Telangana, at least, the BJP may want a bigger play the next time, as it has always been a supporter of the idea of a separate state. The TDP will be loath to give it bigger space.
It is in the BJP’s interest to give the Sena an honourable deal this time. It will, in fact, also serve as a reminder to allies that it is not planning to finish them all. By pushing Uddhav into a corner, the BJP is actually making it easier for the Sena to stay separate and build its base – which is exactly what the BJP should avoid. In opposition, the Sena will acquire a glow that it never can as a part of government.
Broadly speaking, the Modi-Shah strategy seems to be to tie up with the smaller parties (LJP in Bihar, AJSU in Jharkhand, Apna Dal in UP, etc) and give the bigger allies a tough time. But there are limits to this strategy, as the normal Indian tendency is to ensure that the biggest party does not become too powerful.
Ashok Malik, writing in The Times of India, says that the current situation is somewhat like the late 1980s, when there was one dominant central party, a second national party, but much weaker, and several strong regional powers. He says: "Today, BJP seems to have become the principal party in just such a polity. For the near future, it will face challenges from regional politicians and occasionally from Congress but will probably remain the single biggest all-India party. Having said that, while the territorial expansion of BJP is among the most exciting political phenomena in a long time, there are limits to the party’s unilateralist rise."
The underlying message is clear: the BJP should not assume that its rise is inevitable or that its growth is inexorable. It has to come to terms with reality.
In Maharashtra, while there is no danger of the BJP losing the trust vote even if the Sena does not join the coalition, the fact is pushing the Sena to the wall will erode trust with other allies - present and future.
The writer is editor-in-chief, digital and publishing, Network18 Group