BJP: Making space for strange bedfellows

The BJP’s policy of welcoming all incomers has yielded a bounty of allies. This is causing a problem of plenty in states where the allies don’t see eye to eye.
BJP: Making space for strange bedfellows
(Express illustration | Sourav Roy)

The strategy, described strikingly as a “free incoming policy” by a political commentator, was a two-edged sword to begin with. In the 1990s, when the BJP took a significant leap towards acquiring a pole position in national politics, the party’s brass realised that just hawking its three core issues—“liberating” Ram’s birthplace, abrogating Article 370 and legislating a common civil code—was not enough to supplant the Congress, which still had a strong pan Indian presence.

A notable facet of the BJP’s ambitious but astutely-crafted blueprint was to work hard at snagging big leaguers from other parties, especially the Congress, although it still had not coined the slogan of offering a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ (India rid of the Congress).

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Any Congressperson signalling a desire to switch was a prey: Rangarajan Kumaramangalam, K C Pant, Sunil Shastri, V C Shukla, Buddha Priya Maurya, who was P V Narasimha Rao’s Dalit mascot from Uttar Pradesh, were some of the incomers.

If Maurya supposedly added to the BJP’s endeavour to transcend its image as a ‘Brahmin-Bania’ outfit, the induction of Kumaramangalam, Pant, Shastri and Shukla lent celebrity to a party with a less-than-celebrated leadership line-up—barring Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L K Advani and Vijaya Raje Scindia—enhanced by their lineage as scions of political legends.

The presence of the sons of Mohan Kumaramangalam, Gobind Vallabh Pant, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Ravi Shankar Shukla blunted the perception of being an “outcast” that for decades shadowed the BJP and its precursor, the Jana Sangh.

The outflow from the Congress and other parties went on incessantly, and often indiscriminately, until there came a moment of truth before the 2004 elections, when the BJP was confident PM Vajpayee would get another term. Dharam Pal Yadav, a UP politician and habitual party-hopper, was ushered in with fanfare despite his criminal antecedents to target the Yadav votes then with the Samajwadi Party. Yadav had got his political mentor Mahendra Bhatti murdered in 1992.

In 2004, his son Vikas and nephew Vishal were given life sentences for killing Nitish Katara, a young business executive who was dating Yadav’s daughter Bharti. The BJP, touted as a “party with a difference”, was hard put to explain Yadav’s induction and discarded him under public pressure.

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Such free arrivals were dismissed as “aberrations” in the BJP’s breathless onward journey. Alliances and incomers were embedded as a vital aspect of its blueprint that continues despite the party’s record of getting majority mandates in states as well as the Centre.

As for the big guns in the Congress and other parties, can they be faulted for aspiring to get elected and be gifted with a ministry and, if that’s not tenable, secure a Rajya Sabha or state council berth? Especially if the leader belongs to a failing party like the Congress.

The recent arrival of Ashok Chavan, former Maharashtra chief minister, and Milind Deora, former Congress MP from Mumbai and a close associate of Rahul Gandhi, in the Shiv Sena testify to the NDA’s near-hegemonic status in a landscape muddled by a skewed playing field.

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What does the BJP’s open-house policy signify? Obviously, it wants to sweep away the detritus left by the opposition, particularly in states with a high yield of seats such as Maharashtra, Bihar and West Bengal and even UP, where the BJP’s pre-eminence is unchallenged so far.

Plenitude brings its own problems, which expose BJP’s soft underbelly in a promising scenario. In Maharashtra, the BJP gerrymandered the legislative numbers to displace a coalition headed by the Sena and install its own by splitting the Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party. Its machinations have erupted in a serious caste imbalance, flowing from the demand for OBC reservation from the Marathas, a powerful intermediate caste.

While the BJP consolidated its OBC votes, it had failed to nurture a Maratha leader. Chief minister Eknath Sambhaji Shinde, from the breakaway but dominant Sena faction, fitted the bill and was assiduously courted by the BJP. But the low-key Shinde outplayed the BJP by promising to give the Marathas a share in the reservation pie.

The move angered the OBCs and the BJP, which is in a quandary. Endorsing Maratha reservation could cost the party its core OBC votes, which might migrate to the Sena headed by Uddhav Thackeray, now a part of the opposition coalition. Confronting Shinde would checkmate the BJP’s pro-Maratha strategy.

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In Bihar, the BJP counts five partners in the NDA, each with a distinct social base that notionally constitutes a winning formula of upper and backward castes, economically backward class and Dalits: Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party, Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha, Chirag Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (Ram Vilas) and his uncle Pashupatinath Paras’s Rashtriya Lok Janshakti Party. In the wings waits Mukesh Sahni’s Vikassheel Insaan Party, representing the Mallah caste of fisherfolk and boatmen.

The BJP’s task is cut out in Bihar, which has 40 seats. In 2019, only the JD(U) and Paswan’s undivided LJP were part of the NDA. The BJP and Nitish’s party took 17 seats each, leaving six for the LJP. The NDA swept the elections, winning 30 seats.

Would the winning streak replicate in a layout that has four new entities (and possibly a fifth) of which the LJP factions are at loggerheads? As Paswan’s legatee, his scion Chirag—courted by the BJP after his successful public rallies—is demanding the six seats his father got five years ago. As the undisputed leader of the NDA, the BJP would claim its past quota of seats, which means the JD(U) will have to scale down its expectation.

In UP, from winning the race with just two allies in 2019—Apna Dal (Sonelal) and NISHAD Party—the estranged Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party is back in the NDA. The BJP acquired Choudhary Jayant Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal. On paper, each partner stands for distinct and fairly compatible identity groups that should shore up the BJP’s prospects.

In the joust for seats, the devil lies in the detail. Small and geographically confined as these parties might be—the SBSP in eastern UP, Apna Dal and NISHAD in Awadh and the east, and RLD in the western Jat belt—they are aware of their utility to the BJP and might not give in as easily as Big Brother expects.

Radhika Ramaseshan

(Columnist and political commentator)

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