There is a simple metric for assessing the waning of the BJP’s fortunes between 1999 and 2009. In the earlier year the party won close to 54 percent of the Lok Sabha seats it contested; in the latter year, a mere 27 percent. Despite contesting a substantially higher number of seats in 2009, the BJP ended up with just 118 seats in the Lok Sabha, against the 182 that it won in 1999.
One of the reasons for the BJP’s diminishing numbers has been the departure of a number of the significant allies from 1999. Indeed in the space of those ten years, the party lost its principal regional allies in Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. These partners left at various times and mostly because they found the BJP’s rather extreme persuasions a political liability.
Soon after the BJP declared Narendra Modi, probably its most polarising and controversial leader, as prime ministerial candidate for 2014, it suffered another desertion from the dwindling ranks of its allies, with the Janata Dal (United) deciding to go its own way.
Today, one of the first to break ranks has come back into the fold, marking a significant symbolic triumph for the BJP. Ram Vilas Paswan took his Lok Janashakti Party (LJP) out soon after widespread communal riots gutted Gujarat under Modi’s watch in 2002. Always a proprietary concern, the LJP has become more so since then. In sustaining his political career and providing for a line of succession through his brother and an ambitious son, Paswan has since had to strike up an alliance with the Congress and Laloo Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).
Failing to get what he regarded as an absolute minimum entitlement of seven seats from his negotiations with the Congress and the RJD, Paswan opened another channel to the BJP. To forget his 2002 scruples and take the BJP’s controversial leader to his bosom, was a minor repudiation of principle, since the larger cause of serving family interest was involved. Of the six seats where the LJP has announced its candidates, the Paswan clan will contest three.
Ideology has been the principal casualty in an election season where family interests and insecurities are the main drivers. The two main parties of the left – the CPI(M) and CPI – enjoyed the briefest period of success in working out an alliance with other like-minded forces and some of the regional parties. But it took no more than two weeks for Tamil Nadu’s wilful chief minister J. Jayalalithaa to realise that the price required for associating with the left – six seats out of the total of thirty-nine in the state – was not quite worth the reward.
Jayalalithaa’s rival in the regional context, M. Karunanidhi’s DMK, has after successfully working the revolving doors between the BJP and the Congress, decided to go it alone in 2014. In announcing candidates for all the Tamil Nadu seats, the DMK seems to have thrown the electoral prospects of union cabinet heavyweights such as Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, into a state of uncertainty. Speculation has focused on the recent difficulties that Karunanidhi has encountered in arranging the dynastic succession, with two quarrelsome sons threatening to dismember his political legacy. A lone fight without the encumbrance of an alliance, may be considered in the circumstances, the perfect setting for new equations to emerge under the patriarch’s favoured younger son.
In neighbouring Kerala, the two main parties of the left were showing none of the magnanimity they assumed was their due from Jayalalithaa. After many years of standing together, the CPI(M) leadership in Kerala, thought little of overriding the smaller partners’ claims to seats they had long contested. Two partners of long standing quit the left coalition in a huff and were without any friction accommodated in the rival Congress-led front.
Paswan’s recent move may help in dispelling the sense several parties have had about association with the BJP being a political hazard. And with Laloo Yadav’s filial loyalties leading him to dump even longstanding political associates, the BJP has become a magnet for disgruntled individuals who were till recently sworn to fighting it.
Yet the BJP has encountered internal turbulence over its anxiety to bring some allies on board and its seeming intent to supplant older leaders with others who would be more at ease within the Modi dispensation. Prospective alliances in Karnataka and Haryana have been questioned by leaders of the old school, who think that these would impair the party’s ability to challenge the Congress record of malfeasance.
To convert a putative “Modi wave” into tangible political advantage requires that the BJP should create appropriate facts on the ground. And that task is proving rather difficult, especially since residual vulnerability over its ideological isolation could lead to an undiscriminating choice of allies.