The Telugu Desam Party’s (TDP) decision to first pull out its ministers from the government, remain within the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) for a short while and then exit the NDA is not unlike the pattern of shifts we have seen since the inauguration of the coalition era more than two decades ago. Every federal coalition since 1996 has witnessed these movements. In fact, some parties have shifted positions more than once during a government’s term. There are instances when parties have switched coalitions midway and subsequently returned. The JD(U)’s movement to the Mahagathbandhan and back is a recent instance of this variety of switching.
These shifts happened so frequently during the tenure of NDA I (1999-2004) that the former BJP president, the late Jana Krishnamurthy, caustically remarked that the NDA was not a railway compartment with passengers going in and out at every station. However, unlike in the past, coalition trading during NDA II has been minimal. So, what explains the timing of entry and exit of state-based parties from federal coalitions?
In an article in the journal, Studies in Indian Politics in 2016, Balveer Arora and I examined party shifts like this in the period 1996-2014. This phenomenon, which we called revolving door coalition shifts, includes a variety of changes in the position of the coalition partner vis-a-vis the ruling federal coalition. We found that every shift has three dimensions — consequence, direction and location — and it is the combination of these dimensions which distinguished shifts from each other.
First, the direction. Is it towards or away from the government? Second, the consequence of the move. Will the shift impact the position of the government in the House? Third, the location. Parties have three locational options, including executive coalition, legislative coalition and Opposition. Intra-coalition shifts include the movement from the executive to the legislative coalition and vice versa and they do not change the position of the government vis-a-vis the Opposition. Whereas parliamentary-consequential shifts, depending on the direction, could have implications for government survival and longevity. These shifts include inward movements like Opposition to the executive and Opposition to the legislative coalition and outward movements like the executive to the Opposition and the legislative coalition to the Opposition.
The TDP’s initial move from the executive to the legislative coalition is the most benign of the six possible revolving-door coalition shifts. This shift does not reorder the legislative landscape and is only a symbolic rather than a reliable signal of changed intentions. However, its more recent decision to exit the NDA is a parliamentary-consequential shift.
These shifts can be explained by the organisational logic of parties and the implications of the electoral calendar. State-based parties like the TDP prioritise state-level electoral concerns in their programmes, strategic choice of positions as well as allies. The logic of politics at the state level is the primary lens for all their calculations and they are often unconcerned with the implications of their moves in other states. Following from this, whenever parties perceive an electoral disadvantage from their role in the federal coalition, they are likely to shift positions.
The intermediate zone of not being in government but in the legislative coalition has been an attractive position for coalition partners, especially during the latter half of a government term for multiple reasons. First, they assume that this increased distance will reduce the electoral liability of being associated with the incumbent. Second, this position of being there and yet not being there gives them bargaining space vis-a-vis the government. Third, it gives them the autonomy to look at other options.
The pull-out spectacle is part of the game between the TDP and its principal rival at the state level, the YSR Congress Party (YSRCP). The TDP hasn’t survived this long without knowing when to hedge its bets and would, therefore, not have missed the signals. With the coming of the YSRCP, the BJP’s options in Andhra opened up. The intermediate zone would have suited the TDP as it would have made it difficult for both the BJP and YSRCP. However, the latter upped the ante with the no-confidence motion, leaving the TDP with very little choice.
At the same time, the TDP will also be aware that the BJP itself has changed. The Shah-Modi BJP is definitely not the Advani-Vajypayee BJP of the 1990s, which was willing to be a side actor. The party’s aggressive country-wide Vistarak Yojana, aimed at strengthening its local units and expanding its presence in hitherto weak areas, has been on for some time now. The results are also now there for all to see.
The lessons from the BJP’s treatment of its ideologically closest and oldest ally, the Shiv Sena, cannot be ignored, especially when the BJP itself has hinted at following the Maharashtra model in Andhra. The fact that the BJP has charted out an independent base for itself in neighbouring Telangana would also not have been lost on the TDP. Finally, one cannot ignore that the TDP lost an important voice within the BJP when M Venkaiah Naidu was elevated as Vice President of India. The TDP’s attempt to humour the BJP leadership has since then cut no ice.
The TDP’s exit is, therefore, well timed. With elections around the corner, the party sees only marginal returns in being in the alliance. Many of the party’s electoral promises depended heavily on a friendly Centre and now remain unmet. With inadequate financial resources, the dream of a capital city within five years remains only a dream. Furthermore, with a poor industrial base and new investment not readily forthcoming, its scope for raising resources is modest. Special Category Status was, then, the only option which would have given the state some traction. Its denial combined with the aggressive moves by the YSRCP, limited the TDP’s choices. It had to salvage a reputation, tarnished by association with a less-than-friendly BJP.