The Bharatiya Janata Party seems to be in a tearing hurry. It is on a rapid expansion drive, and everyone, whether friend or foe, must step aside.
The die was cast in Bihar for Nitish Kumar to make way for a BJP chief minister. Chirag Paswan, an aspiring and ambitious Dalit leader, would bring the Janata Dal (United) or JD(U) tally in the Assembly down, giving the BJP numerical superiority. In a perfect scenario, Chirag, a Nitish Kumar-baiter, would play the role of a kingmaker and ensure that the largest party, the BJP, gets CM-ship. In exchange, the young Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) leader would probably be handsomely rewarded in the central government. His father, late Ram Vilas Paswan, was already a Union minister. In a more likely scenario, the BJP, despite its larger tally, would keep the promise to install Kumar as chief minister and he, much sooner than later, would vacate it, gracefully, to shift to the Centre or take ‘sanyas’. The BJP would then become numero uno in Bihar politics and, in a matter of time, appropriate Kumar’s political legacy as also a large chunk of his party.
JD(U) leaders in Patna, who conjured up the above scenarios to me, were probably seeing the ghost when there was none. Or, maybe, they were reading too much in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s refusal to publicly take the name of Chirag, his self-proclaimed ‘Hanuman‘, and categorically dissociate himself from him. These JD(U) leaders were no less alarmed by the Income Tax department’s raids against contractors associated with the state government’s Har Ghar Nal Ka Jal Yojana or piped water scheme. These raids, conducted right in the middle of elections, lent credence to Chirag Paswan’s charges of corruption in Nitish Kumar’s dream project. Could IT sleuths act without informing their political bosses, wondered JD(U) leaders. Be that as it may, some JD(U) leaders lost nerve and started sending discreet messages to its cadres on the ground in constituencies where the BJP was contesting—vote as per your conscience.
It is in this backdrop, marked by conspiracy theories, innuendos and distrust, that the BJP and the JD(U) await the Bihar poll results on Tuesday. Exit polls have been unanimous in giving an edge — even a clear majority in some surveys — to Tejashwi Yadav-led opposition alliance. National Democratic Alliance (NDA) leaders hinge their hopes on the pollsters getting it wrong, once again.
Going by JD(U) leaders’ apprehension — or conspiracy theory — about the BJP’s intent behind the alleged propping of Chirag, if exit polls hold true, the saffron party would end up hurting its own nose, and face, along with its ally’s. Even if these polls are proven wrong on Tuesday, the BJP must brace for a chilly winter, with Nitish Kumar likely to become a tougher frenemy than he ever was. The BJP may not be losing its sleep over the results though. Even if it ends up on the opposition benches, it may savour the mouth-watering prospect of the JD(U) gradually disintegrating once Nitish Kumar, 69, hangs up his boots, leaving the party with no mass leader to steer it. Given the fact that Nitish Kumar’s vote bank, especially the extremely backward classes (EBCs) and non-Paswan Dalits, swears more by PM Modi today, the BJP is set to only grow in Bihar— whether it wins or loses this time.
Pitfalls of BJP’s expansionism
Nitish Kumar is not the first ally to feel the heat from an expansionist BJP. Even before the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) decided to quit the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in protest against the Narendra Modi government’s ‘unilateral’ decision to push agricultural reforms, the BJP was already preparing to go it alone in the next assembly election in Punjab. Akalis were only playing naïve in complaining about their ally at the Centre not consulting them over these reforms.
The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), another NDA constituent, also felt the heat from the BJP last week as the latter unsuccessfully tried to go ahead with its month-long ‘Vel yatra’ to cover six shrines of Lord Murugan. AIADMK leaders also say that the BJP is trying to appropriate the political legacy of its founder, M.G. Ramachandran or MGR.
These instances only underline the inevitable in Indian politics. Riding on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity, the BJP doesn’t see the need to carry extra baggage—of alliance partners. As many as 15 political parties left the NDA between 2014 and 2019 and three quit the BJP-led alliance after Modi got a renewed mandate. As Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) pointed out in a well-researched article in the Mint, the allies which left the NDA in its first term cost it 22 of the 336 seats it had won in 2014. In 2019, however, Modi brought the NDA back to power with 352 seats.
Signal to the states
The BJP, therefore, has no reason to delay its expansion drive just for the sake of being considerate to its allies, which are dispensable. In the process, if the allies are riled and find the BJP arrogant, so be it. BJP leaders would rather call it chutzpah or supreme self-confidence.
Union Home Minister and BJP’s chief strategist Amit Shah is known to play high stakes. As long as Modi enjoys popularity, Shah will continue to go for broke in one state after another — regardless of Bihar’s poll outcome. Three-and-a-half years ahead of the next Lok Sabha election, Modi reigns supreme, with no challenger visible on the horizon. Thanks to his popularity, the BJP has been able to expand its social base among backward classes and Dalits. The expanded support base votes overwhelmingly when it comes to electing Prime Minister Modi. But they don’t show as much enthusiasm when it comes to electing his regents in states, the chief ministers. That explains the underwhelming impact of PM Modi’s campaign in assembly elections in the past two years.
The BJP leadership would hope this trend changes in Bihar on Tuesday. Nonetheless, the fact is that the party has few local leaders to turn to in many states, including Bihar where high profile Union ministers from the state were seeking to prove their electoral relevance through media interviews. While the BJP’s expansion drive is on, it still has to depend on alliances with regional parties to come to power in many states, especially in the northeast. Its perceived one-upmanship vis-à-vis allies may hurt its cause in the immediate future but the BJP can afford to take risks in states as long as PM Modi is keeping its fort in Delhi secure.
Views are personal.