By Liz Mathew
The BJP’s numbers in the Lok Sabha elections have redrawn political equations — got arch rivals to unite, arrested the growth of a few others and positioned the party as a prospective alternative in states where it didn’t stand a chance before.
Last week, when the BJP called off its once “rock-solid” alliance with the Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC), it made another longstanding ally, the Shiv Sena, uneasy. The Maharashtra party, which has, until now, been used to setting the terms of the partnership, may have sensed an unsettling change in its ties with the BJP, its ally of 25 years.
Less than 100 days after it came to power with a landslide majority, the BJP has gone back to the drawing board, this time with a plan to trigger a political realignment in all the major states, especially those that are poll-bound.
The setting is perfect for the BJP. It’s in the saddle with an emphatic win (282 of 543 Lok Sabha seats) and its main opponent, the Congress, is still grappling with questions about its future. The BJP’s rise has got a few arch rivals to unite and stand up to the new political giant, arrested the growth of a few others and, above all, positioned the party as a prospective alternative in states where it never stood a chance before.
“The fantastic victory of the BJP has unnerved all parties. Now it has become a battle of survival for a number of political parties. They know that with leaders like Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah, the party cannot be stopped,” says BJP spokesperson G V L Narasimha Rao. “It is changing political lines and equations in all the states.”
J&K, Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand will all see elections by the end of the year and so, for now, it’s these poll-bound states that will feel the heat of the BJP’s rise.
If the BJP had been playing second fiddle to the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra for decades, May 16 changed it all. In the last Assembly elections, the BJP contested 119 of the 288 seats and the Sena in 169, but as the alliance partners sit down to finalise seats for the elections, the regional party is contending with some muscle-flexing from the BJP. With the BJP already talking of contesting from 135 seats, the chances of Sena president Uddhav Thackeray becoming the chief ministerial candidate look increasingly bleak.
State BJP president Devendra Fadnavis says, “Yes, there was tremendous pressure from our cadre not to enter into an alliance and contest all 288 seats on our own. But our alliance with the Sena was founded on a common ideology. We are keen on keeping it intact through some give and take. But ground realities cannot be overlooked.”
The BJP’s new heft could be seen in the way the central leadership of the party left the seat-sharing talks to the state unit, asking Uddhav to resolve his problems with Maharashtra BJP leaders. The message was loud and clear: the BJP won’t indulge in any pampering of Sena ego by rushing its central leaders to Matoshree. In fact, Shah has not even picked up the phone to talk to Uddhav to discuss the elections. In the past, whenever the Sena complained, it was always central BJP leaders, including L K Advani, who intervened to defuse the crisis. But the tables have clearly turned. Both Modi and Shah recently indicated to state leaders that the Sena should realise its own strengths and limitations.
Last week, after the BJP’s Bihar bypoll setback, Uddhav got back at his ally through an editorial in party mouthpiece Saamana, “The Assembly polls are going to be different and the BJP should be under no illusion that everything will work on the Modi factor.”
In states such as Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP’s strategy is to rope in leaders from other parties or Independents to beef itself up. After getting seven legislators from the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik) to join it, the BJP is trying to get its chief Babulal Marandi to return to the party. Marandi, who left the BJP in 2006, had been trying to cobble up an alternative to the ruling JMM combine, but he will now have to strategise afresh, in line with the BJP’s political gameplan christened Mission 42+.
In Jammu and Kashmir, where the BJP launched its Mission 44+ — a plan to win 44 of the state’s 87 seats — it is looking for fresh faces to lead the party. The speculation is that the BJP leadership is keen on getting Sajjad Lone, the first separatist leader who contested elections, and a few Congress leaders, including some sitting MLAs, into its fold before going full steam with its election campaign. The party has also launched “booth-level sammelans” to enthuse party workers, addressed by senior leaders and Union ministers such as HRD Minister Smriti Irani and Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan. Besides, “parivartan yatras” or “rallies for change” have been launched across constituencies and will be carried out till September 5, after which the party will begin its “formal” campaign for the Assembly elections. The party’s focus is the 37-seat Jammu region, where it has raised issues related to the settlement of refugees from POK, reservation for OBCs, the return of Kashmiri Pandits and Article 370. In the 46-seat Kashmir Valley, the party is mobilising the Kashmiri Pandit vote, and is banking on a boycott by the Muslim voters. Though the main political players in J&K — National Conference, Congress and PDP — do not see the BJP as a big threat yet, frequent visits by Modi and others senior BJP leaders have left them uneasy.
In Haryana, though the BJP contested the Lok Sabha election in alliance with Kuldeep Bishnoi’s HJC, the alliance quickly unravelled when Bishnoi’s party lost both Hisar and Sirsa. The BJP, on the other hand, registered its best performance ever in the state, winning seven of the eight seats it contested, and it was clear who would set the agenda from now on. Besides, with the Congress battling anti-incumbency and internal rebellion, it was easy to get some of its biggest leaders to cross over to the BJP.
The BJP’s break-up with Kuldeep Bishnoi’s HJC in Haryana puts the spotlight on the party’s increasingly fraying ties with the Shiromani Akali Dal, its ally in neighbouring Punjab. Largely seen as having been sidelined ever since the Akalis returned to power in the state in 2012, the BJP recently hit back by inducting former Punjab DGP and Akali leader P S Gill in its ranks, a move that elicited sharp reactions from Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal.
The changed political equations were visible in the Lok Sabha during the just-concluded Budget session. Parties such as the Trinamool Congress, BJD, AIADMK, YSR Congress and TRS focused their energies on isolating the Congress rather than opposing the BJP. Leaders of these parties have privately admitted that they have decided to go “soft” on the BJP, at least for the first three years.
“People have voted for change and the mandate was in the BJP’s favour. So we do not want to be seen as opposing them vehemently,” says a senior BJD leader.
If the BJP’s emergence and the Congress’s rout in the national elections have triggered an open rebellion in the ruling party in Assam, the fear of the BJP’s growth seems to have brought the state’s main opposition party, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), closer to the Congress. Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi used the AIUDF’s support to quell the recent rebellion against him and is now considering a formal alliance with that party. The BJP has already emerged as an alternative, pushing the Asom Gana Parishad back further.
Nowhere was this realignment more stark than in Bihar where rivals JD(U) and RJD joined hands with the Congress to fight the BJP, winning six out of 10 seats in the August 21 Assembly by-elections. But the BJP will hope to offset this defeat when by-elections are held in Uttar Pradesh on September 13. The BJP hopes to win most of the 11 seats, four of which are in volatile western UP.
BSP chief Mayawati’s refusal to join hands with the ruling Samajwadi Party has not ended the debate on the possibility of a fresh political alignment in Uttar Pradesh. The success of the RJD-JD(U)-Congress combine in Bihar has revived talks of “secular parties” joining hands against the BJP in other states, especially in Uttar Pradesh.
“In UP, the BJP is cleverly working on a social alliance. While it approaches the OBCs through smaller parties, it is directly engaging with the Dalits. The smaller parties prefer to be with the winner, but unlike the Congress, the BJP, because of its organisational strength, has the capacity to eat into their support base,” says Badri Narayan, an Uttar Pradesh-based social historian.
In his presidential address at the recent party conclave, BJP president Amit Shah urged his party workers to “capture” power throughout the country — “from J&K to Kerala and from Gujarat to Nagaland”. Shah also urged delegates from Assam, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Kerala to work hard and register a significant presence at the civic elections, which, he thinks, would alter political equations at the state level.
The BJP is also focusing on Tamil Nadu, where it already has almost half a dozen smaller parties with it, to replace the rift-ridden DMK. Shah recently appointed Tamilisai Soundararajan, daughter of Congress leader Kumari Ananthan, as the state unit chief.
With the Left parties and the Congress on a steady decline in West Bengal, the BJP is gearing up to be the alternative force there too. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee knows this only too well. So talking about the successful Bihar experiment against the BJP, she told a TV channel that she would “think about” a possible tie-up with the Communists, whom she has spent all her political life fighting. “In our state, if the same situation develops, we will think. Nobody is untouchable,” she said.
In Kerala, the party has initiated attempts to rope in smaller parties to overcome the “untouchability” in the state’s political scene.
“To realise this objective, we should make the BJP’s presence felt in each and every panchayat, zilla parishad, municipal corporations and other elected bodies,” Shah told the party workers.
Speeches done, the BJP went back to its drawing board. For its rivals and allies, the picture that is emerging isn’t quite a happy one.
(With inputs from Shubhangi Khapre in Mumbai)
2014 LS polls: 1 out of 21 seats
Vote share: 21.5 per cent, up from 16.89 per cent in 2009
MLAs: 10 out of 147
The Assembly elections are five years away but Amit Shah and team are hard at work. To counter Naveen Patnaik’s pet peeve of Central neglect of Orissa, the state was given an additional allocation of Rs 3,000 crore in the general Budget. Last week, the Centre increased mining royalty to 15 per cent, a move that will fetch the state additional Rs 1,600-odd crore in royalty every year. In the last three months, five Union ministers, the latest being Union Mines Minister Narendra Singh Tomar, have visited the state launching new projects.
In December, the BJD plans to launch its biggest-ever membership drive in the state with a target to recruit at least 5 lakh new members within the next three months. While the party is working on the caste profile of each constituency, Amit Shah realises the BJP stands a realistic chance in 2019 only if it adds the BJD’s votes to its kitty.
The party has also identified 270 BJD leaders, of whom it plans to induct about 100 into the party over the next three years. Of the 100, 30-35 are MLAs/MPs.
Former BJD leader Bijoy Mohapatra, who joined the BJP five years ago, says several disgruntled BJD leaders are in touch with the party. “Signs of discontentment in the BJD are visible now. We have to exploit this.”
2014 LS polls: 7 out of 14 seats
Vote share: 36.5 per cent, up from 16.21 per cent in 2009
MLAs: 5 out of 126
In Assam, the BJP has announced its ‘Mission 84+’ for 2016, with 84 being the number of seats required to get a two-thirds majority in the 126-member Assembly. “My most important task is to prepare a strategy to wipe out the Congress in the next Assembly elections due in 2016,” says Siddhartha Bhattacharyya, the new BJP state president, buoyant after the party won seven of the 14 Lok Sabha seats. “The forthcoming three Assembly by-elections and civic body elections will be our half-yearly exams,” says Bhattacharyya.
While Amit Shah is expected to visit Assam soon, he has already appointed two-time MP and Sangh veteran Ramen Deka as national secretary. Bhattacharyya has hinted that the BJP will induct new faces in the months to come. Several top leaders of the All Assam Students’ Union are reportedly lined up for admission. A confident BJP has turned down repeated pleas from the AGP to take it into the NDA fold. Instead, it has poached several top AGP leaders.
Of the other Northeast states, in Tripura, the party for the first time won in panchayat elections, taking five panchayats during the polls in July.
2014 LS POLLS: 0 out of 20 seats
Vote share: 10.8 per cent, up from 6.4 per cent in 2009
MLAs: 0 out of 140
In Kerala, which has always been dominated by the CPI (M)-led LDF and the Congress-led UDF, the BJP remained an also-ran. But that could be changing. Last week, in Kannur district, 350 CPI(M) sympathisers and another 100 from the Congress joined the BJP.
The BJP state committee is meeting for two days starting August 31 and Amit Shah will attend on the second day, his maiden visit to Kerala as party president. The 2015 local body polls will be the next big test for the BJP. In the 2010 panchayat elections, the BJP had won in 450 wards, up from 236 wards in 2005.
Party sources say the BJP has identified booths where it could win or at least put up a strong fight. In the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP finished first in four Assembly segments in Thiruvananthapuram and second in two segments in Kasargode.
2014 LS POLLS: 1 out of 20 seats
Vote share (undivided Andhra): 8.5%, up from 2.84% in 2009
MLAs: 5 out of 119
In Telangana, where the BJP won five Assembly seats and the Secunderabad Lok Sabha seat, the party is trying to seize the political space left by the Congress. It is hoping that once the euphoria over the formation of Telangana is over and the TRS loses its appeal, the party would be in a position to take the lead. Amit Shah’s recent visit has rejuvenated the party and it is testing the waters by contesting the upcoming Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation election and the Medak Lok Sabha bypoll. Shah has made it a point to meet district and mandal chiefs of the party.
In neighbouring Andhra, the BJP has left political space through ally TDP for now.
2014 LS POLLS: 2 out of 42 seats
Vote share in 2014 16.8%, up from 6% in 2009
MLAs: 0 out of 295
The statistics tell the story of a steady saffron spread in West Bengal. In 1992-93, the BJP vote share in the state was 11 per cent but over the next few years, it dropped to 5-6 per cent. The party registered its best vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Though the party finally won only two seats — S S Ahluwalia from Darjeeling and Babul Supriyo from Asansol — it stood first in 21 Assembly segments and was at the second position in 40 Assembly segments.
The party is chalking out a broad strategy to widen its base in Bengal. In the last three to four months, over 1.5 lakh people have enrolled with the party and more are lining up. The RSS has thrown its weight behind the BJP, with its pracharaks spreading out to different corners of the state.
Birla said her campaign this time is “very similar” to the last time.