The loss of allies in the previous term of the NDA government did not weaken the government. That and the BJP’s ability to expand its own social coalition has made the BJP lean less on allies than it did before
The Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is in some trouble. One of the oldest NDA allies, Shiromani Akali Dal, has walked out of the alliance. In Bihar, where elections are underway, one of the NDA constituents, Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) has walked out of the alliance and has succeeded in creating tensions between the existing NDA partners - BJP and the JD(U).
Despite these developments, the BJP leadership doesn’t seem perturbed. There are two key factors behind such confidence in the face of adversity. The first factor is electoral arithmetic. As many as 15 different political parties left the NDA between the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections. While this dented NDA’s strength in the Lok Sabha towards the latter half of its term, the BJP and NDA were able to recoup their losses and posted an even more impressive victory in the 2019 elections than they did earlier.
The exit of allies cost the NDA 22 of the 336 Lok Sabha seats it originally had in 2014. But the NDA returned with an even higher tally of 352 seats in 2019, thanks to the BJP’s own improved performance. After the 2019 elections, the NDA has already lost 21 Lok Sabha seats, primarily due to the exit of the Shiv Sena. BJP’s oldest ally had won 18 seats in the 2019 elections. But it is still three and a half years for the next elections, and the NDA still retains a dominant position in the Lok Sabha today. It is also possible that the BJP may be able to attract new parties to join the alliance ahead of the next elections, just as it did ahead of the 2019 elections.
BJP’s ability to expand its social coalition is the second factor that gives the BJP leadership the confidence to walk alone when the need arises. It is this expansion in its support base that has allowed the BJP to retain its dominance in India’s polity despite a steady stream of exits from the NDA.
Historically seen as a ‘Brahman-Bania’ party, the BJP has won significant support among social groups such as Dalits (or SCs), Adivasis (STs) and OBCs (Other Backward Classes).
It has done so partly by exploiting cleavages within these broad social categories. In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, it has won the support of non-Jatav Dalits by successfully painting the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) as a party that caters only to Jatavs, a key Dalit sub-caste to which the BSP supremo Mayawati belongs. Similarly, across the country, it has consolidated lower OBCs who have so far found lesser representation in politics and government jobs compared to upper OBCs, data from Lokniti-CSDS surveys show.
There has been similar expansion geographically: towards the east and the south, going beyond its traditional strongholds in the north and the west. The BJP has also managed to bridge the rural-urban, and rich-poor divides, growing its support beyond its traditional urban upper class base.
Most importantly, the BJP has been able to expand its social coalition without losing its core support base. It has courted Dalits and OBCs without losing support of its core upper caste vote bank. And it has won the support of the rural poor without antagonizing the urban rich. It is this ability to stitch a rainbow Hindu coalition that has given the BJP the confidence that it will survive and thrive, even if it loses allies. In a nutshell, the BJP is much less dependent on allies for expanding its support base than at any time in its past.
However, the loss of allies is not entirely costless or painless, even for a party such as the BJP. The circumstances surrounding such moves can create negative perceptions. The Akali Dal has walked out in protest against the farm reform bills, accusing the BJP of being ‘anti-farmer’. This issue could find nationwide resonance. Hence, BJP spokespersons have been actively trying to counter the perceptions about the bills hurting farmers and farm incomes.
Although the Akali Dal was a smaller ally, it seems to have dented the BJP more than the Shiv Sena by walking out the way it did. The BJP was able to project the Sena’s exit as an opportunistic move to grab the chief ministerial chair in Maharashtra. The Akalis have walked out on a matter of principle, and hence have discomfited BJP leaders more than the Sena did.
Nonetheless, the BJP leadership is unlikely to lose sleep over allies even if some exits hurt more than others.
Sanjay Kumar is a professor at the Delhi-based think-tank, CSDS, and a political analyst.