Sujit Chakraborty is a senior journalist and author of three books. He has worked with various publications and was the first Indian to manage Bhutan’s first independent daily, Bhutan Times. He has also specialised on environmental issues
It’s that time of the election cycle, again, when the political class revisits the ‘Jai Kisan’ slogan. The never-ending agrarian crisis, marked by falling farm incomes and rising input costs, is sought to be addressed through a variety of quick-fix measures.
When Agatha Christie wrote this mystery novel in 1939, she could never have imagined that the story line would fit a Union Government in a far off country like India. With sixteen parties having deserted the BIP during past five years, National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA’s) fate seem to have been sealed. Only a few still remain on board but none of them, barring Akali Dal, carries any weight. What happened to the NDA which was 334-member strong in 2014?
Shiv Sena is among the earliest allies of Bharatiya Janata Party. The Sena Chief Bal Thackeray forged a bond with Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pramod Mahajan in 1989 which lasted for 25 years. The Sena, along with Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) chief Parkash Singh Badal, stood by the BJP when no other party was ready to back the 13-day-long Vajpayee government in 1996. The two parties have been together through thick and thin. If Lal Krishna Advani launched a rath yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya for construction of Ram Janmabhoomi Temple, Thackeray was a step ahead planning the demolition of the Babri Mosque.
It therefore came as a bolt from the blue when Thackeray’s son Uddhav, the current Sena president, not only distanced from the BJP last year but also announced that the two parties would contest separately in the 2019 Parliamentary elections.
In fact, this is not the first time that BJP and Sena would contest separately since the two parties came together in 1989. They contested the last Parliamentary elections together but parted ways during Assembly elections held nine months later. Seeds of the discord had been sown on a dispute over seat sharing. Riding a resurgent Modi wave, BJP performed better than Sena during the 2014 Parliamentary elections.
This is why it wanted to play big brother to the Sena during Assembly polls. Not agreeing to scale down the number of seats the Sena had been contesting for past quarter of a century, Uddhav decided to contest alone.
Unable to get a majority, BJP looked at the Sena to form the government in Maharashtra. The Sena obliged. But BJP remained the dominant partner, grabbing not only Chief Minister’s post but also cornering most of the important ministries. Uddhav had to eat a humble pie. But, last year his cup of humiliation was filled to the brim. That’s when he decided to part ways with BJP.
With Lok Sabha hold just around the corner, BJP wants to court the Shiv Sena once again. In the wake of a resurgent Congress-NCP alliance, BJP leaders have been making overtures to the Sena for seat sharing. Uddhav Thackeray instead responded by repeating a slogan coined by Congress chief Rahul Gandhi: “Chowkidar Chor Hai” (the guard is himself the thief).
The ‘Guard’ in question, is none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who coined one of his typical cheap populist slogans, that he was the ‘chowkidar’ guarding against thieves and knaves looting the country. Gandhi’s slogan came in the context of the allegation of monumental misappropriation in the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter aircraft from France, and bringing in Ambani by ousting the official aircraft makers of the country, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited.
This, more or less, has been the story of the NDA led by the BJP, during the past five years. Lo and behold, one by one 16 parties have quit the alliance – some quietly like Asom Gana Parishad, and some among claps of thunder, like the Telugu Desam Party and Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
Officially, the NDA claims to have 42 parties in its fold but if Shiv Sena is left out, the biggest chunk of Lok Sabha MPs is six of Lok Jan Shakti Party (LJSP), four of SAD and two each of Janata Dal (United) and Apan Dal. Only four other parties have one MP each in the Lower House of the Parliament. Rest of the 31 parties are there in the alliance as just fillers – 13 parties from southern India (including eight from Kerala and five from Tamil Nadu) and 12 from North Eastern states.
The alliance tally in Lok Sabha is now down from 334 in 2014 to 307. And if we take out recalcitrant Shiv Sena, the tally gets further down to 289 just seven more than what BJP won in 2014 elections.
The reason for this depletion in numbers is twofold – first, the desertion by a dozen and a half allies, and second, losses suffered by the BJP in successive by elections during the past five years.
These are the twin problems BJP needs to tackle on priority. Solving the first puzzle automatically solves the second. If BJP manages to persuade its estranged allies to come on board again or win more, it could harbour hopes to return to power. On the contrary, there are at least a dozen more allies who are threatening to part ways.
Fire in Northeast
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which was passed by the Lok Sabha during the Winter Session, is proving to be the proverbial Achilles Heel for the BJP. The bill provides citizenship to all non-Muslim immigrants from neighbouring countries who apply for it after residing in India for six years. BJP’s allies in the northeast are mighty miffed over this.
The AGP has already left the NDA, while a number of them like Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura and Nagaland People’s Party are threatening to follow suit.
The AGP feels the bill negates the Assam Accord reached between All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the Rajiv Gandhi government at the centre in 1985. The agreement barred people from migrating into the state after 1971 the year Bangladesh was created. It also provided for eviction of people migrating into Assam after the cutoff date. The National Registry of Citizens (NRC) created last year, has 49 lakh such people who have been living in Assam “illegally”.
The AGP leaders fear that the situation will worsen if the Citizenship Bill is turned into a law after passage from the Rajya Sabha as well. But, such a situation is highly improbable because of staunch opposition to the bill by a host of parties including Trinamool Congress. These parties won’t allow the bill to be approved in the Rajya Sabha, as the ruling alliance is still in a minority there.
“We tried our level best to explain the negative effects of this bill in Assam, but the BJP left us with no choice but to leave the alliance by taking this bill forward,” said AGP president Atul Bora. Other northeastern parties agree with AGP that the bill if passed, might alter the demography of these states, besides being ultra vires because of discrimination on the basis of religion (singling out Muslims).
This latest exit has given rise to speculation that the NDA is in deep trouble. BJP leaders however claim: “Whenever old allies leave, new ones join. The NDA doesn’t get weaker if a party leaves it. The coalition is in an even stronger position than before.” But, the current trend indicates otherwise. And it is likely that BJP might be left with only a handful of allies by the time election schedule is announced in March first week.
This was precisely the reason for the shocking defeat of the Atal Behari Vajpayee government in the 2004 elections. The NDA-1, as it has come to be called now, was formed in 1999 after the fall of the Vajpayee government with one vote on the floor of Lok Sabha. At that time, it had 23 members. The BJP had only 181 members, 101 less than its 2014 tally. But, the allies made up for much more than the required number. But, by next elections, the alliance was left with only six parties most had already jumped the sinking ship.
Narendra Modi fears an encore. This is why he along with BJP chief Amit Shah has been going out of the way to placate the allies. First to threaten the BJP was Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJSP. Paswan’s son Chirag wrote two letters to Shah and Modi demanding an ‘honourable share’ in seats for the next elections. Shah and Modi not only conceded his demand of six Lok Sabha seats but also promised to send the senior Paswan to Rajya Sabha via elections due next month.
But more surprising was their capitulation before another Bihar ally JD(U) agreeing to let it contest 17 seats, though the party could win only two in the 2014 polls. This left the BJP to contest only 17 out of total 40 seats in Bihar, though it had contested 30 seats, winning 22 of them in the last elections (2014). What a major climb down!
This emboldened other alliance partners to extract their pounds of flesh as well. Apna Dal chief Ashish Patel has started cribbing about the unfair treatment meted out to a party which has two Lok Sabha MPs and 19 members in Uttar Pradesh Assembly. He threatened to field candidates in 10 Lok Sabha seats if the party was not compensated adequately this time. Another UP ally, the prickly Om Prakash Rajbhar of Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party, too has demanded at least two seats, lest it is forced to part ways.
The exodus of allies from the NDA had started in 2014 itself, when, just a few months after the Lok Sabha elections, the Haryana Janhit Congress quit before the state assembly elections. Party Chief Kuldeep Bishnoi alleged: “The BJP is a fraudulent party. It wants to finish off regional parties.”
Another party that left the fold in December that year was Tamil Nadu’s MDMK. Its chief Vaiko alleged that the BJP was working against Tamils. Vijayakanth’s DMDK, which had lost all 14 seats it contested as part of the NDA in the Lok Sabha polls, left soon after, as did S Ramadoss’ PMK.
Telugu superstar Pawan Kalyan had campaigned heavily for the NDA in the general elections, but didn’t take long to get disenchanted, leaving the alliance with his JanaSena Party. In 2016, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (Bolshevik) in Kerala also distanced itself from the NDA. Recently, tribal leader CK Janu’s Janadhipathya Rashtriya Sabha departed, accusing the NDA of not fulfilling its promises to the tribal population of Kerala.
Maharashtra ally Swabhimani Paksha left NDA in 2017, accusing the BJP-led central government and state government of being anti-farmer. Last year, the spate of allies quitting the NDA began with Bihar’s Hindustan Awam Morcha (HAM). Then, the BJP lost one of its oldest allies. The Naga People’s Front broke its 15-year alliance with the NDA just before assembly elections in Nagaland in February last year.
The Telugu Desam Party, the biggest party in NDA after BJP and Shiv Sena, too quit soon over non-fulfilment of demand for special status to Andhra Pradesh. The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha withdrew its support to the NDA, claiming that the BJP had cheated them.
The aftermath of the Karnataka assembly polls saw the Karnataka Pragnyavantha Janatha Party break its partnership with the BJP to join the post-poll JD(S)-Congress alliance.
By December, another ally had enough, as the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party left the NDA fold and joined the UPA. Another party from Bihar, Mukesh Sahni’s Vikassheel Insaan Party, followed the RLSP into the opposition fold. Sahni was considered close to Amit Shah.
In June 2018, BJP pulled out of its alliance with the Jammu & Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party, leading to the fall of Mehbooba Mufti’s government. Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma of the National People’s Party (NPP) has also threatened that he has all options open to him, including quitting the NDA. The NPP is vehemently opposed to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill.
In the last Lok Sabha elections, the BJP had contested with 28 parties, winning 282 seats on its own, while 22 allies won 52 seats. After the polls too, the NDA has welcomed many smaller parties into its fold — at its peak, the NDA had 48 constituents.
Political analysts claim that most NDA parties are hedging their bets for the upcoming Lok Sabha polls. Feeling that Modi has lost his charisma, they are either siding with UPA or charting their independent course in the hope of being in a better bargaining position, in case of a third front government if neither BJP nor Congress manage a clear majority in the coming elections.
The allies are also miffed over the high handed behaviour of the BJP during the past five years. The allies had negligible say in governance. They suspected being snooped and followed. With BJP having a clear majority in Lok Sabha, allies were apprehensive of being thrown out of government if they protested the Modi-Shah antics.
That explains their anger.
It’s payback time for them.
And for the BJP as well.