New Delhi: Fear of being marginalized is driving the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) towards hitherto uncharted territory. The party that rose to the centre stage by championing the cause of upper-caste Hindus is now reaching out to Dalits and backward castes, and sending overtures to Muslims in a bid to expand its support base and retain its political relevance.

Some analysts say this is a “Congressification" of the BJP—a mimicking of the strategy that helped its arch foe the Congress party, rule India for much of its independent history and again replace the BJP at the helm of the Union government six years ago.

Towards moderation: A 19 Feburary photo of BJP national president Nitin Gadkari (centre) with party leaders Ananth Kumar (right) and Shivraj Singh Chauhan during the party’s national executive meet in Indore. PTI

Newly elected BJP president Nitin Gadkari, speaking at the annual meeting of the party’s national executive recently, sought to enlist the support of Dalits and backward castes that make up a significant chunk of India’s voters.

He also called upon Muslims to accept a Ram temple at the site of the Babri mosque—which was razed in 1992 by a mob as the climax of a Hindu nationalist movement led by BJP leaders—in return for another mosque in the neighbourhood.

Political observers termed it a turn towards moderation, crucial for a party that has lost two consecutive general elections and a string of state elections and seen its voter base dwindle over the past six years.

“It has now become electorally imperative for the BJP to move towards moderation, also made important by compulsions of a coalition era," said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president, Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank. “What Hindu nationalism fundamentally needs is politics of anxiety, which is much less now than earlier and hence the BJP is not succeeding in polarizing (the electorate) now. In this context, it is moving towards moderation."

Muslims and Dalits have always been crucial for Indian political parties—national or regional. Muslims constitute around 14% of the national population, according to the 2001 census. While there is no accurate estimate of the Dalit population, different studies peg it between 16% and 20%.

“It is a democratic fact that to be a mass-based national party, you require a significant base among Dalits," Mehta pointed out.

Saibal Gupta, a Bihar-based political and development analyst, said national parties had realized that a coalition of extremes, which includes all sections of society from Brahmins to Dalits, was the most effective strategy to stay in power.

The Congress, he said, had always banked upon this strategy until its decline in the 1990s.

“It got breached and unfortunately for them, those kind of coalitions have been forming in different parts of the country. (Chief minister) Nitish Kumar is trying it in Bihar and in Andhra Pradesh, (former chief minister) N. Chandrababu Naidu managed to do it," said Gupta, founder and member secretary of the Asian Development Research Institute, Patna.

But the Congress reinvented itself to storm to power in 2004 at the head of a rainbow coalition called the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). In last year’s election, the party led the alliance to a second term in power.

Although it continues to rule with the help of allies, general secretary Rahul Gandhi, who is seen as a future prime ministerial candidate, is keen to bring the Congress to power on its own.

The party is now making a concerted pitch to regain lost ground in the politically crucial states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which together send 120 members to the Lok Sabha. Smaller parties such as the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal have captured a large chunk of the electorate in these states.

“It is tougher for the BJP than the Congress (to be a big tent party). Congress has been, in the last couple of years, able to convey different messages. It has shifted from (former prime minister) Rajiv Gandhi’s techno-managerial orientation to inclusive orientation," Gupta said.

Mehta hoped the BJP’s efforts would at least keep the Congress from becoming complacent.

“With both Congress and BJP now vying for the same political space, what it will do is push Congress out of its complacency. But the Congress is still at an advantage compared to the BJP, given that the latter’s geographical base is not that wide," he said. “It will have to peak in all states where it has a presence simultaneously in order to replace the Congress."

Regional parties are not amused by the new agenda set by the national parties. “(Regional parties) are very much needed in the current political scenario," said Jose K. Mani, a Lok Sabha member belonging to Kerala Congress (Mani).

“Even in the context of development," he added, “when national parties tend to ignore certain regions, it is the smaller parties which sense the deep-rooted issues of the people."