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When Narendra Modi formed his first government in 2014, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had the support of around two dozen political parties. But within a few years, most of them had deserted him. Among them were valuable supporters such as the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) with 16 MPs. Chandrababu Naidu lamented the fact that the prime minister did not even have time to meet him.
Naidu’s experience truly reflects the use-and-discard treatment meted out to the BJP’s NDA allies since 2014.
Nine parties, including the Shiv Sena, Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), the Akali Dal, AIADMK, Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and minor outfits like Apna Dal, All Jharkhand Students Union had won the 2019 Lok Sabha polls as NDA allies.
The tragedy has been that within two years, major allies like the Shiv Sena, Shiromani Akali Dal and LJP found themselves out of what Steven Levitsky calls the ‘devil’s bargain’. Look at how the JD(U) – badly bruised and humiliated – desperately struggling under the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) proverbial ‘Dhritarashtra aalingan‘ or embrace.
In his celebrated work How Democracies Die, Steve Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt devote a full chapter – ‘Useful Alliances’ – to how charismatic strong leaders the world over use smaller parties to establish their hegemony and discard them after use.
They compare the fate of the smaller allies to that of the horse in Aesop’s Fables, who, to settle scores with a stag, ends up as a permanent slave of the hunter. But unlike Aesop’s horse, Modi’s allies were not enslaved but had to leave the NDA jaded and humiliated.
A quarrel had arisen between the Horse and the Stag, so the Horse came to a Hunter to ask his help to take revenge on the Stag. The Hunter agreed but said: “If you desire to conquer the Stag, you must permit me to place this piece of iron between your jaws, so that I may guide you with these reins, and allow this saddle to be placed upon your back so that I may keep steady upon you as we follow the enemy.” The Horse agreed to the conditions, and the Hunter soon saddled and bridled him. Then, with the aid of the Hunter, the Horse soon overcame the Stag and said to the Hunter: “Now get off, and remove those things from my mouth and back”. “Not so fast, friend,” said the Hunter. “I have now got you under bit and spur and prefer to keep you as you are at present.”
– “The Horse, the Stag, and the Hunter,” (Aesop ‘s Fables)
Uddhav Thackeray, leader of Shiv Sena, the BJP’s oldest ally, proved to be a different kind of horse. He threw off the hunter and kicked him squarely. When humiliated, he revolted against Modi, negotiated with anti-BJP parties like the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Congress and formed the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) with himself as chief minister. Contrary to Amit Shah’s calculations, the MVA government did not collapse.
On the contrary, the stability of the alliance led to a series of defections from the BJP in Maharashtra. Soon after Amit Shah’s visit in February last year, seven BJP councilors quit the party. Then, six BJP corporators defected to the Shiv Sena, and a former Nanded BJP MP quit the saffron party and joined the Congress.
The use-and-discard model
In a frontal attack on Modi in January, Thackeray exposed the BJP’s ‘use and throw’ policy to wrest power. “Remember the days when BJP candidates used to lose deposits in elections? That time they needed us and other regional parties like Akali Dal, TMC… But now these neo-Hindutvavadis are using Hindutva only for their own benefits,” he said, regretting that the Shiv Sena ‘wasted’ 25 years in NDA.
While Thackeray had the guts to hit back before it was too late, look at the pathetic plight of the Akali Dal. Long years of ruthless family rule leading to the desertion of senior leaders, dumping the core Sikh tenets and beliefs accompanied by blind support for Modi brand of politics have thrown the 100-year-old Akali Dal into an existential crisis. The party that fought glorious struggles like the Punjabi suba and peasants movements is now struggling to come in at the fourth or fifth position.
Apart from alienating its core Sikh ranks, the party became unpopular due to its uncritical support to the BJP on the Babri Masjid issue, the reading down of Article 370 and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Sikh ranks who were traditionally seeking more powers for the states resented the Badal family’s silent approval to such decisions. More humiliating, the Modi government took the SAD so casually that it was not even consulted before announcing decisions like the three farm Bills. Its minister did not protest when the three Bills came for formal cabinet approval. The party acted only when the entire Sikh peasantry took to the streets. But by then it was too late.
Its dismal performance in the last assembly (2017) and the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and civic polls was a warning to the SAD leaders about the dangers of dining with the devil. The Aam Aadmi Party got more seats (20) in the assembly than Punjab’s grand old party did (18). Things have come to such a pass that fearing public wrath Akali leaders are avoiding visiting rural and semi-urban areas.
People see them as unscrupulous wheeling-dealing politicians whose 10-year rule (2007-2017) pushed the farmers into devastating living conditions. The period was marked by rising corruption, growing drug menace, expansion of the sand and gravel mafia and monopoly control over transport. The SAD was encouraged by the political protection offered by the Modi regime from enforcement agencies.
LJP leader Ram Vilas Paswan had been an enthusiastic acolyte of the Modi regime. He went on defending all divisive initiatives by the NDA until his death in October 2020. But in exchange, what his son Chirag Paswan, who succeeded the father, got was a shabby treatment. Apparently, the BJP had a different game plan for the post-Ram Vilas Paswan Bihar. It wanted to bring the large Paswan base directly under the saffron umbrella.
For this, the young and ambitious Chirag has been an impediment. So they worked out a succession battle, weaned away his uncle Pashupatinath Paras and engineered a split with five of the six LJP MPs recognised as a new group by the Lok Sabha speaker. After a legal battle, the Election Commission also recognised the two sides as separate parties and gave them their own symbols.
Since September last year, there were indications of a change of mind in New Delhi. The original formula of using Pashupatinath seemed to be floundering with Chirag getting huge crowds even in the uncle’s constituency. Local community leaders have gravitated towards the departed leader’s son. The other nightmare is the dangers of a grand alliance between Chirag and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) scion Tejashwi Yadav.
The BJP’s short-lived coalition with Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) from March 2015 to June 2018 was a different kind of alliance. Both sides knew the limitations and yet hoped to win brownie points. Mehbooba Mufti was opposed to the coalition but her father hoped that it was worth experimenting with. His hope was that Modi, as a leader who was seen capable of carrying the entire government with him, could initiate a fruitful dialogue with Pakistan and help resolve Kashmir’s problems.
This was a time when Modi was being hailed as a leader who had a solution for every problem. Beijing – relations with which was warming up with successive Xi visits – was taking an interest in India-Pakistan negotiations. But things did not work that way because the BJP wanted to use the PDP alliance to gain a foothold in Kashmir. Thus, from the beginning, tension developed on issues ranging from Article 370 and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, the Kathua rape and ceasefire with Pakistan. “It was like drinking a cup of poison,” Mehbooba said after she quit the coalition.
Nitish’s ‘tense’ relationship with BJP
Nitish Kumar, another ally, presents a classical example of the use-and-discard model Levitsky and Ziblatt write about. When Nitish was anointed as chief minister to checkmate Lalu’s RJD, his JD(U) was the largest single party. As the Dhritarashtra embrace tightened, Nitish’s standing eroded and the BJP gained. Thus, in the 2020 assembly polls, the BJP replaced the JD(U) as the largest single party with 74 MLAs. JD(U) was reduced to 45.
Since then, the state BJP leaders began treating Nitish Kumar as a usurper and weak leader with a rapidly diminishing mass appeal – an ideal scenario to humiliate the victim and further erode his credibility and reputation. As of now, Nitish’s outright ouster may not be on BJP’s agenda. For that will mean the fall of the government, and perhaps, push him to the other side. Instead, the whole effort is to clip the minority chief minister’s powers, undermine his authority and force him to follow the BJP’s political line.
As an old player, Nitish must know the the perils of being a ‘puppet’ chief minister. BJP ministers, including the deputy chief minister, use every trivial issue to corner him. For this, they have started playing the opposition’s role. Nitish has been seeking special status for Bihar to tide over its backwardness. But his deputy chief minister publicly decried the idea and supported the Union government’s position. “Deputy CM ko kuch bhi nahi pata,” Nitish retorted. And the latter promptly hit back.
A few weeks ago, BJP MLA Haribhushan Thakur and minister Samrat Choudhary asked Nitish to impose a Haryana-like ban on namaz in public places. The assembly speaker from the BJP introduced the singing of the national anthem in the House, much to the chagrin of the chief minister’s camp. BJP leaders are also pressing for an anti-conversion Bill on the lines of those in other BJP-ruled states.
There are sharp differences on the need for a caste census, excise policy and liquor tragedies. BJP’s cultural cell chief Daya Prakash Sinha raised another controversy by equating Emperor Asoka with Aurangzeb. The chief minister’s camp resented this. When a hooch tragedy struck Nalanda, Nitish Kumar’s constituency, BJP was in the forefront of assailing the government’s prohibition policy.
Now, they have stoked a controversy over an order under an existing rule requiring registration of temples in the state. The BJP, along with temple priests, describe it ‘anti-Hindu’. Another demand is for a blanket ban on madrasas. The idea was put forward by the BJP after a powerful blast took place in a madrasa in Banka district.
The kind of tension in the relationship is best illustrated by state president Sanjay Jaiswal who warned the chief minister that the ‘76 lakh BJP workers know how to give a befitting reply’. Nitish Kumar’s current ordeals should be a warning to all those parties that still hope to gain something from an alliance with the BJP.
P. Raman covered politics for national dailies since 1978 and is the author of Strong Leader Populism: How Modi’s Hybrid Regime Model is Reshaping India’s Political Narrative, Ecosystem and Symbols.