The decision of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) to part company with its long-term ally need not be surprising except on the question of timing. Coalition theorists would describe the post-2014 NDA as a surplus majority coalition — the BJP has had the numbers in Lok Sabha on its own and all allies have been superfluous. It was sustained because the allies could get a share in power at the Centre and make the most of the alliance in their states. Most of the NDA allies have been unable to win majorities on their own in their states and that forced them to remain with the BJP. But by nature, smaller partners are redundant in surplus coalitions.
Over the years, particularly after 2014, the relatively stronger allies of the BJP have walked out of the NDA (occasionally walking back in too). The Shiv Sena was the first to try to walk out, though it quickly backtracked after the state elections. The JD(U)’s departure produced more drama since it led to a new power equation in Bihar. Both the Shiv Sena and JD(U) were unable at that time to settle for an alternative arrangement. But the indications were clear that the changed context would lead to a re-think by both sides.
Actions of parties are often viewed from the prism of cynicism because parties act in self-interest. It is easy therefore to berate the SAD for its sudden pro-farmer turn. The choices of the JD(U) and Shiv Sena lacked even that fig leaf of policy differences. But instead of evaluating such decisions through a so-called moral compass, we could check two things: One, does the action make sense in the context of coalition politics? Two, does a self-serving decision indirectly produce anything beyond self-interest?
The first concerns the difference between national and state parties in their approach to coalition politics. The BJP always had a clear ambition to not only replace the Congress from power at the Centre but also as the central force in politics. Early in the 1990s, the BJP realised that it was far away from being an all-India party. It set about creating an all-India footprint by seeking to gain power at the national level. This strategy brought about the NDA, where anti-Congress forces could be persuaded to pool resources. For the many state parties that had emerged by then, such non-Congress alliances offered an opportunity to extend their influence beyond the state.
Historically, the BJP has had limited presence in many states — Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal or even Bihar. The NDA served two purposes. It ensured an electoral front that could help the BJP become a critical player nationally and form the government in Delhi. Secondly, it allowed the BJP to obtain a foothold in states where it did not have a presence. If one looks at the growth of the BJP in Karnataka, Maharashtra or Bihar, between 1996 and 2004, this latter purpose was admirably served at the cost of state parties. Therefore, it was for the state parties to take a call on how long to go with the BJP. The fragmentation of the NDA was thus inevitable. The advent of Modi only hastened that process both because of the personalised authority that now marked the BJP and because of Modi’s ability to situate the party so handsomely in the power grid.
Since 2013-14, the BJP began to lose interest in allies who now became an unnecessary burden. But it still continued to humour state parties through the NDA for a variety of reasons. This strategy could effectively block the Congress in some states at least. Besides, in states like Tamil Nadu the BJP continues to be a weak force and needs state-level parties to get an entry. Third, it needs allies in many states to form governments there — as in the case of Haryana, and Jharkhand. Similarly, in Bihar, Maharashtra or Punjab, the party can come to power only by sharing power with a state-level player. But its willingness to share national power in exchange has been sharply declining post-2014. It is more comfortable with smaller state level players who can be more easily managed. Therefore, it was only a matter of time before larger state parties identified a point where the possible benefits of the alliance are nullified by the costs at the state level. Possibly with the exception of the JD(U), no state party with a sizable presence would now remain with the BJP.
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Once state parties quit the coalition, they begin to discover what is wrong with the BJP. One may blame them for realising it too late, but their discoveries are usually accurate. In this sense, the self-serving decisions of state parties to part ways with the BJP serve a larger purpose.
Just like the strident anti-BJP stance taken by the Shiv Sena after its fallout with that party, the SAD has now appealed to all non-BJP parties to join hands on the farmers’ issue. This would put pressure on fence-sitters like the YSR Congress and TRS. Should that happen, the BJP would be slowly moving towards grand isolation.
Will that hurt the BJP or will it bask in the glory of that isolation? Modi’s (and more so, Shah’s and Adityanath’s) BJP is probably waiting to enjoy that glorious isolation — because in that would also be a recognition that it is the only holder of real power. More than that, it would allow the BJP to more openly march towards where it has been itching to move in the past year or so — an ideological position that openly defies the Constitution and a political practice that rejects all democratic norms. The isolation would also enable others to identify clearly what the BJP stands for.
Except, perhaps, in Haryana, the current noise created by the SAD may not hurt the BJP much but it still opens up the field of competition. More than that, it brings in the fresh air of robust contestation in a political environment stuffed with the smoke of arrogance born out of electoral successes.
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They may well fail in bringing about change, but in the last instance, in their cynical pursuit of self-interest, parties like the Shiv Sena or Akali Dal have, unbeknown to themselves, saved themselves from continuing the sin against the Constitution and democracy.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 30, 2020 under the title ‘Split and effect’. The writer, based at Pune, taught political science and is currently chief editor, Studies in Indian Politics
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