BJP battles for allies

2019: War of Positions

By Poonam I Kaushish

Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci’s ‘War of Positions’ and ‘War of Manoeuvres’ indicate two different phases in a power struggle. While the former is the slow, hidden conflict where forces seek to gain influence and power, the latter is a phase of open conflict between Parties whose outcome is decided by direct clashes between them. A time when Parties gerrymander vote-shares and appease voters with the sole objective of the winner taking it all!
The recent by-polls in four Lok Sabha and 11 Assembly seats spanning 11 States where the NDA won just three of 15 contests spells bad news for the BJP and signals to the Opposition that local-level unity can defeat it. Example, UP’s Kairana where Ajit Singh’s RLD candidate supported by Mayawati’s BSP, Akhilesh’s SP and Rahul’s Congress defeated the BJP.
The victory underscored that though SP, BSP and RLD represent different warring social groups, Jats, Muslims, Dalits they can be mobilised to vote for a Muslim candidate, despite recent history of communal animosity between Jats and Muslims. This is akin to the Karnataka win where the BJP increased its vote-share but was outwitted by a united Opposition. Lalu’s RJD wresting an Assembly seat from BJP-ally JD(U) in Bihar, too, bodes ill for BJP. Will the Opposition be able to maintain this unity for the 2019 elections and beyond?
Undoubtedly, the Saffron Sangh’s defeat in its Hindu bastions since the Modi tsunami in 2014, raises several questions: Is the BJP’s invincibility dying? Is the Hindutva card past its expiry date? Is a combination of gathering anti-incumbency and Opposition’s electoral arithmetic of unity putting brakes on BJP’s much vaunted electoral machine? Are these by-polls a dress-rehearsal? Or will they be prophetic?
Certainly, Opposition unity will not be easy, given the disparate aims and agendas of various Parties that will have to pull together. Alongside, the BJP is a strong player, Modi has no competitor and Amit Shah has turned BJP into an electoral machine which reaps rich dividends, 21 States including terrains that are not too friendly as Tripura showed recently.
Yet, his Government has fallen short on promises: Economy has performed below expectations, the rural belt is dissatisfied and there is urban apathy and disinterest in voting. The youth is angry at Government’s inability to generate jobs and communal polarisation might not pay electoral dividends. Moreover, there is erosion in its vote-share.
Importantly, these reverses open up new options for the BJP. One, a large victory highly probable a year back is less certain now. The losses indicate it cannot take Opposition unity lightly and will have to chalk out an out-of-the-box strategy for another term. It has lost a total of nine Lok Sabha seats and is down to a simple majority of 273 MPs. Consequently, it is now increasingly reliant on its allies to prove its majority. This could go down further in 2019.
Some political scientists opine the Party might bank on Hindu consolidation to retain power at the Centre. As its allies especially Shiv Sena and JD(U) are turning uneasy and have dropped enough hints of weighing its benefits of staying in the NDA.
Further, just hours into the BJP’s electoral losses, there were some discordant noises from its allies. Both Shiv Sena’s Udhav Thackeray and Bihar’s Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s said the BJP needed to up its handling of “considerable resentment” against the Government across the country over a number of issues “the latest being the spiralling petrol and diesel prices”.
It also wanted the BJP to stop taking its alliance partners for granted. “The NDA is a large coalition and we hope that BJP President Amit Shah will take the initiative to communicate better with alliance partners”. For someone who has rarely given advice to the BJP, it is Nitish’s strongest remarks despite his “unhappiness” at the Centre refusing to accord Bihar special category status.
The RLSP was blunt, “The BJP needs to give up its big brother attitude towards alliance and work on coordination within the NDA.” See Andhra’s TDP walked out because of this high handedness and Modi’s failure to honour his promise. The Sangh is now busy sharpening its strategies and finding new allies. Already, it has made overtures to Karunanidhi, Pawar and Jaganmohan Reddy, Naidu’s enemy in Andhra.
Not a few state that all is not well between the RSS and the Modi-Shah team. Many BJP watchers read Mohan Bhagwat’s assertion of ‘people should talk less and work more’ as a dig at NaMo. However, BJP vanguards dismiss this as rumour mongering. Said a senior leader, “There is seamless co-ordination between RSS and BJP and strong discouragement to nepotism. Modi’s new schemes, governance and respect for allies are the three defining features of his ‘new culture’ which will help the Party retain power.”
What next? The UP experiment — BSP supporting SP — has given the “khul ja sim sim” code to the Opposition for entering the Alibaba cave in 2019. After Bihar, the UP by-polls have conclusively proven that the Modi juggernaut can be finally stopped if the Opposition joins hands and replicates Bihar-type grand alliance in key States.
The “Bua-Bhatija” slogans that rent the air in Gorakhpur, Phulpur and Kairana may well become the template for 2019 general elections. Mayawati has reasons to see light at the end of the tunnel and can afford to be more optimistic that her political winter is finally getting over. For the SP the victory is a bargaining chip in allocation of seats when SP-BSP-Congress grand alliance is being sewed up ahead of next year’s polls.
For Rahul’s Congress it is an ideal situation for it to reinvent itself, first in the forthcoming Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh elections this year-end and then prepare for 2019. But as the bickering over portfolios allocation in Karnataka between the Congress-JD(S) shows the Parties need to put egos aside, stop putting hurdles in its own path to stay together. As is Mayawati’s warning that fair seats allocation is essential for continued unity.
True, the Parties know that it’s only in rethinking their old rivalries and laying their differences aside to fight the BJP together that they stand even a ghost of a chance. The elephant in the room is whether the Congress is willing to take this experiment, of playing second fiddle to a regional Party, as the model for a grand coalition to face NaMo’s BJP in 2019?
In the ultimate the slew of defeats highlights that Modi-Shah will have to rectify the internal fault-lines, set its house in order, tweak its States’ leadership to retain an edge. The BJP would need to take urgent corrective steps as any rift in the family could result in the entire edifice of political support collapsing.
As the BJP reviews the causes for the shock defeat and goes back to the drawing board to fine-tune its strategy for the 2019 elections, NaMo will have to work doubly hard, be as resourceful and innovative as his adversary and seize the initiative back. Simultaneously the Party will have to change its election strategy in a big way. Will he be able to do so, remains to be seen, else the BJP and Modi can sigh: 272, so close, yet so far! Be prepared to see a battle for allies. —- INFA