It is not surprising, perhaps, that NDA allies are now talking back to the BJP, demanding that they be consulted more often and complaining that the BJP is not adequately responsive to their sensitivities and concerns. At a meeting in the capital on Monday night, the SAD reportedly pointed out that the NDA government was acquiring an anti-minority image and that it was not holding up its side of the pact with its partner in Punjab, the Shiv Sena accused the BJP of ignoring its allies on important issues, and the RPI spoke out on Rohith Vemula’s death and the damage done by the political handling of its aftermath. The allies’ candour, and their plainspeaking to the BJP, comes in a context: Of general dissipation of the sense of the Narendra Modi-led BJP’s invincibility, especially after the debacle in Bihar.
It also comes ahead of crucial events like the budget later this month and a round of assembly elections after that for which the BJP has apparently reset its Only Modi strategy. In Assam, it has named a chief ministerial candidate, while in West Bengal, by all accounts, it will rely less on Modi, more on its local leadership. Clearly, the NDA allies feel emboldened to seize this moment when the BJP’s winning streak appears dented and the party seems pushed onto the backfoot in terms of politics as well as strategy. They are sending out the message that it should not take its partners for granted.
But there may be a larger message in this tableau of the BJP and its outspoken allies. For quite some time after the Modi-led BJP came to power in 2014 with a resounding majority, it had seemed that its will would prevail. The return of the majority government at the Centre also appeared to signal a dialling back of the need for consensus-building in a diverse and federal polity. But the BJP’s predicament 20 months later offers instructive lessons on the limits of the large mandate, and underlines why, sometimes, even 282 seats may not be enough. Any political project must be backed by numbers, of course. But its success will also depend on the hard labour and skill of politics that is needed to overcome or negotiate with difference and disagreement, and sometimes even pure obstructionism — from the Opposition as well as allies.
The message, in other words, for the Modi-led party and government is this: The government can have its way, but only as long as it doesn’t go through Rajya Sabha, where it must summon savvy and statecraft to make any headway. Again, the BJP may not need the allies’ numbers at the Centre but it must answer their questions if it is to expand with their support in the states.