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Allies like these

BJD’s split from BJP is indicative of larger trends in Indian politics

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
March 10, 2009 12:44:10 am

The widely predicted break-up of the BJD-BJP alliance reveals some important trends in Indian politics. In this season of open political possibilities,alliance negotiations are open to multiple interpretations. Is this about the BJD taking a principled stand against the BJP? Or is this about Naveen Patnaik looking to expand his national possibilities? In some cases does it pay off for a party to not commit to a pre-poll alliance and keep options open for post-poll bargaining? While these contingent questions are important there are also some long-term structural issues that propelled this outcome.

The first issue is this. Whenever a national party like the BJP or Congress aligns with a regional party,the national party begins to lose in the long run. To put it pointedly,there

is now,in national politics,a contradiction between the imperatives of power and the imperatives of expanding your base. The imperatives of power invariably push

towards alliance politics,and even give parties a temporary boost. But in the long run they also limit possibilities of expansion and put severe constraints on forms of political mobilisation. Going alone is not always an option. Nor is it sufficient for success; that depends on a lot of factors. The BJP has done well in places like Karnataka where it has played on its own for the long haul; wherever it has gone into alliances it has limited its possibilities. This tension is still an issue in Bihar for instance. Similarly,the Congress has a dilemma. While it has not been able to make much headway in Uttar Pradesh on its own,an alliance with the SP will limit its future prospects in the state even more.

In Orissa,it is widely known that the local units of the BJP wanted this break at least as much as the BJD. It is a gamble for both parties. After its success in local civic elections,the BJD senses a possibility that it can enhance its position. It certainly was desperate to get rid of both the ideological and reputational liability of the local BJP. The local BJP wanted more access to power,or at least the freedom to engage in its polarising politics. There is a risk that the Congress may end up benefiting from this tension. The BJD is not invulnerable. While Orissa has done well under Naveen Patnaik,he does not have the implementation record of many other chief ministers; Orissa has done badly on NREGA for instance. But the local Congress is perhaps more moribund and may fail to capitalise on this opening. What

influence the Left will now have on Patnaik’s development model is also an interesting question.

The second issue has to do with the character of the BJP as a political party. The BJP is seriously flailing. The party’s central command has no willingness or ability to tame and discipline its units in different states. The local BJP had widely acquired an unsavoury reputation on governance. But contrary to the image L.K. Advani wants to project nationally,the BJP has also brought an extraordinarily polarising politics to the state. What sets the BJP apart is this. It not only upsets various political relationships. It is the one party whose presence can produce new and unsettling forms of social polarisation. We are seeing instances of that in Karnataka. The Kandhamal riots in Orissa had complicated roots: a deadly mix of Naxalism,the politics of reservation,new forms of evangelism and,in the initial stages,a weak law and order response. But Hindutva groups have in their own way added much fuel to this fire and transformed the character of social relationships in the area. While the government has done well to restore law and order,communal tension is still very high. What the political consequences of that tension resurfacing will be is an interesting question. It is also not beyond the realm of possibility that the BJP will now feel freer to raise tensions in the state. But the composition of the BJP’s local units should worry its central leadership. It is also a sign of how limited the writ of the central leadership is. A party that is not in control of itself is hardly likely to be able to negotiate from a strong position.

We are also beginning to see two political phenomena: diminishing anti-incumbency at the level of states,and the increased importance of performance at the state level. This is giving state-level parties even more confidence to go it alone. In fact,even national parties like the BJP are now several state parties stitched together. The fact that most people experience governance through the state was disguised for a long time by one simple fact. Barring some exceptions,for much of the period of the ‘70s to the ‘90s,there was very little room for the states to manoeuvre. The most important fact of that period was that the states were fiscally bankrupt,and could do very little. There was simply no basis on which to judge their governance. Therefore default reactions like anti-incumbency or identity politics were central.

Economic liberalisation — but particularly the transformation of government revenues,and the fact that states now have huge money to play around with — created the conditions where their governance performance matters. Now state governments can run on their record,and are being rewarded or punished appropriately. This argument suggests that the entrenchment of state-level issues,rather than being a sign of regionalisation of Indian politics,is also a sign that the building blocks for parties will be governance at the state level. This does not mean identity issues will disappear: they are reappearing in new forms,like the movement for EBCs for instance,or intra-caste politics. But they are also being articulated internally within states,rather than across them. But this suggests that national parties will not,in the short run,find it easy to expand their base,unless they adopt radically new organisational strategies.

BJD’s walking out diminishes Advani’s authority further. The BJD can still come back to the BJP post poll. But the truth is that Advani’s reputation as a figure of conciliation and charisma has taken a beating. While Vajpayee attracted allies and confidence,even in difficult times,Advani will find it difficult to keep the flock together. The BJP is in serious crisis. But it is by no means out. It needs to hunker down.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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