Certain people have been finding it difficult to digest the Bharatiya Janata Party’s victory in Maharashtra and Haryana. They must have wished that with the blink of an eye the nightmare would vanish. Since this is not possible, they have attempted to infuse elements that will somewhat diminish the triumphal narrative. Among these, two stand out because they deserve a serious look; many others are simply too frivolous to stand scrutiny. The first is that the BJP is going the Congress way in using its central leadership to ‘impose’ (weak) Chief Ministers. And the second is that flush from its electoral wins, the party is systematically working to decimate or at least marginalise the regional players, including its allies.
The selection of Devendra Fadnavis and Manohar Lal Khattar as the Chief Ministers of Maharashtra and Haryana respectively set off the first allegation. Many candidates were in the fray in both the States, with some like Pankaja Munde and Eknath Khadse in Maharashtra and Captain Abhimanyu in Haryana making their ambitions public. Then there was the brief and almost comical spectacle of a bunch of newly-elected Maharashtra Legislators pitching aggressively for Union Minister Nitin Gadkari. It was clear, amidst the claims and counter-claims, that Fadnavis and Khattar enjoyed the confidence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party chief Amit Shah. That settled the issue. Interestingly, neither Fadnavis nor Khattar had gone on a public overdrive to promote their candidature.
Does this automatically mean that the BJP’s central leadership had imposed these names on the MLAs? Surely, neither Modi nor Shah could have foisted these leaders had they not been sure the two enjoyed wide support of the Legislators. Coming to power for the first time on its own in the two States, the party would have not taken the risk of imposing leaders who did not enjoy internal backing. Moreover, neither Fadnavis nor Khattar is ‘weak’ and amenable to manipulation from the top. They may owe their positions to the Modi-Shah duo, but they are not weaklings of the kind Indira Gandhi so famously appointed to chief ministerial positions and dethroned at will. It would be in order to make the point that Indira Gandhi had an authoritarian streak while Modi is authoritative. The two have different meanings, and it will play out as we watch both Fadnavis and Khattar go about their duties.
To stretch the argument further, none of the Chief Ministers of the BJP can be called supine. On the contrary, they are among the most assertive and popular leaders. Whether it is Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh or Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh or Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan or Manohar Parrikar in Goa – they have their own mind and have received unstinted support from the party’s central leadership. They owe to the central leaders as much as the latter owe to them. Thus, the theory of Modi and Shah putting favourites in chief ministerial chairs, and that too in the face of dissent, does not hold ground.
Now let’s deal with the other ‘dampener’: The BJP is determined to finish off regional players, including its friends and allies. This theory flows from the party’s success in cutting down to size the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and the Indian National Lok Dal and the Haryana Janhit Congress in Haryana. It is true that the BJP is seeking to expand its base in States where regional parties have traditionally had a strong presence or rule. This explains its determined push in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu (all ruled by regional parties). But it must be remembered that both Modi and Mr Shah have made the decimation of the Congress in State after State their primary goal – the seductive ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ slogan paid them dividend in the Lok Sabha and the two recent Assembly elections. Since in all the above-mentioned States, the Congress has already been reduced to virtually nothing, the BJP decided to tackle the regional heavyweights. Even here, remember that if the party can dent the support base of the regional satraps, the Congress will get relegated even lower down the order
In the BJP’s quest to realise this dream, if some regional outfits get hit, it should be seen as collateral damage. Thus, the party targeted the Congress in Maharashtra, and not so much the Shiv Sena. In Haryana, the BJP’s clarion call was to oust the Congress regime led by Mr Bhupinder Singh Hooda, but the INLD and the HJC (both of whom had once done business with the BJP) got caught in the crossfire. This is not say that the BJP wanted to spare these regional parties, but it is to merely underline the fact that the regional players were not so much the prime target as the Congress was.
One presumes that the BJP is sensible enough to realise that it cannot in the medium to long run do without regional allies – or at least regional leaders who, while not being partners officially, are also not hostile (the Biju Janata Dal is a good present example). Indeed, regional outfits are an important factor in the BJP’s plan to keep chipping at whatever hold the Congress is left with in the States. (Its alliance with All Jharkhand Students’ Union is part of that strategy.) Thus, it is quite happy being the junior partner to the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh – since the TDP presently has the wherewithal to shut out the Congress – though not that happy perhaps with a similar situation in Punjab where the Congress came tantalizingly close to outsmarting the BJP in recent elections.
There is talk that the BJP could sooner than later dump the Akali Dal, since the latter has not really brought enough on the table in recent times. Though the Akali Dal-BJP combine secured a second term in the Assembly election, the win was not emphatic. Again, the partnership did not do too well in the Lok Sabha election, allowing the Aam Aadmi Party to encash on the anti-Congress sentiment and bag four seats. Further, the Akali Dal teamed up with Om Prakash Chautala’s INLD in Haryana, although the INLD fought against the BJP in the State. Analysts are right in keeping a sharp eye on the future of the BJP-Akali alliance.
The general conduct of the BJP vis-à-vis the regional parties is, therefore, determined by two factors: What it gets out of the alliance, and how much does that contribute to keeping the Congress away. Bearing these in mind, one can assume that, unless something unforeseen and drastic happens, the BJP will not snap links with Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (another object that commentators claim the Modi-Shah combine has in its firing range), in Bihar, where it is pitted against the formidable Janata Dal (United) which could join hands with Lalu Prasad and the Congress in the next Assembly election. Nor will it possibly allow the crisis with the Shiv Sena to linger for long. The BJP’s real enemy, remember again, is the Congress.