There is something very striking about the political company the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party leading the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), has acquired recently. They do not necessarily bond on the core religious ideology of the BJP; the most striking example being the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), partner of the BJP in the historic alliance ruling Jammu and Kashmir since last year.

If I remember my Aesop’s fable right (it has been decades), you are known by the company you keep. What does it say then for the BJP? Will it lead to its gentrification?

But, first the phenomenon. To be sure, the popularity of the BJP extending to those not intersecting with its core ideology is something more recent; actually it has happened in two phases. The first was when Atal Bihari Vajpayee led the NDA government in 1999-2004 and the second since 2014, when Narendra Modi led the alliance to an audacious win in the 16th general election (the BJP winning 282 seats on its own).

In both instances, the most obvious takeaway is that the BJP was winning. Nothing succeeds like success, especially in opportunistic politics—or something defined by the cynical logic of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend". And given that its electoral footprint was restricted largely to north India, it was in the BJP’s interests to not make a big deal of opportunistic alliance partners (not surprising that several of them drifted away after the BJP-led NDA suffered a shock defeat in 2004 and yet again in 2009; most notably Nitish Kumar and Mamata Banerjee).

But the phase under Modi is turning out to be very different. All of a sudden, the BJP is not just in the running for national power, it is as much a challenger at the state level (its debut in Assam at the expense of the Congress served a reminder). Naturally, political parties that have similar ambitions at the state and national levels will be a logical no-no as alliance partners.

As of now, the BJP’s political allies at the state level include the PDP in Jammu and Kashmir; Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh; Shiv Sena (ever since the BJP gained the upper hand politically, this relationship has been under strain, even though it’s ideologically aligned to the BJP) and Swabhimani Paksha in Maharashtra; Shiromani Akali Dal (probably the oldest ally of the BJP) in Punjab; Apna Dal in Uttar Pradesh; Lok Janshakti Party, Rashtriya Lok Samata Party and Hindustani Awam Morcha in Bihar; Gorkha Janmukti Morcha in West Bengal; Asom Gana Parishad and Bodoland People’s Front in Assam; Naga People’s Front in Nagaland; Sikkim Democratic Front in Sikkim; Bharat Dharma Jana Sena in Kerala (key to the BJP establishing a toehold in the state); and rebel Congress leaders under Kalikho Pul in Arunachal Pradesh.

The big difference between the two phases of the BJP’s political ascendancy, besides the leadership, is the fact that its interests are now glocal. But given that its political presence is relatively limited in some of these states, it is adopting a less strident stance when in alliance—toning down its normally aggressive right-wing rhetoric.

The best example of this is its alliance with the PDP in Jammu and Kashmir. The very fact that it went through all the hoops to re-sign with the PDP (after the demise of Mufti Mohammed Sayeed) shows that the BJP is very serious about persisting with its historical stint at the helm in a state that is the most troubled by terrorism in India. Its actions in office, barring the odd loose remark, have been very circumspect (even the inaugural of the new government earlier this year was a very subdued affair where the normal hotheads were kept on a tight leash).

But this is a tough trade-off to manage. Yes, the BJP is rapidly expanding its political footprint as it gains greater acceptability and is no longer a pariah. But at the same time, its core constituency, especially in north India, must surely be getting restless (manifesting in the lashing out by some of the fringe groups/individuals over the past two years).

Modi, the clever politician that he is, had managed to bridge this divide with his catchy pitch for development in the 2014 general election. In power, he has kept up the refrain with the slogan: Sab ka Saath, Sab ka Vikaas (this government supports development for everyone). So far, he has managed to maintain the equilibrium and its growing list of alliance partners suggests similarly.

Surely at some time, this contradiction will seek some resolution. The big question then is what will it be? The unthinkable as the old adage goes: Will the tail wag the dog?

Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus

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