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View: As regional challenges mount for BJP, it may be turning to good old ‘adjustment politics’

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The political landscape is witnessing some interesting shifts. These point towards a rejuvenation of old school ‘adjustment politics’ that had receded to the background with the rise of BJP as the single-most dominant political force. And while that dominance continues, there’s now a greater diversity of actors in India’s federal space pushing to occupy the political middle ground. Which means there’s now greater premium to occupying the middle ground in India’s large political spectrum.

Hence, strategies, tactics, ways and means will have to change accordingly. In this context, the biggest value will come from the ability to establish conversation bridges across the aisle. We already have Sharad Pawar, a veteran of many a coalition, testing waters with regional parties.

BJP has its own set of issues on this front. It took a wise decision in 2014 to project itself as an NDA government. But in the years that followed, it has lost long-standing allies like Shiv Sena, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Telugu Desam Party (TDP). While this has not adversely impacted its electoral fortunes, it did raise questions on BJP’s ability to keep its alliances intact. The way Uddhav Thackeray jumped ship in November 2019, despite contesting the elections in alliance with BJP, underscored the point that an effective coalition of interests could be made to work.

BJP had suffered a similar setback in 2015 in Bihar at the hands of the Nitish Kumar-Lalu Prasad grand alliance. But that was still a pre-poll arrangement, unlike what happened in Maharashtra. That alliance didn’t last and Nitish Kumar returned to the NDA fold by 2017. But what the Maharashtra shock did was make BJP tread cautiously with Kumar in 2020. Narendra Modi himself made it clear in the election campaign that Kumar would be NDA’s chief minister, regardless of which partner wins how many seats in the polls. So, even though BJP did better, Kumar became CM.

The underlying factor informing these shifts is the fact that voters are making a distinction between national and state elections. This is now a somewhat established pattern. The recent West Bengal elections, where BJP could not extrapolate the gains it registered through the 18 seats it won in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, further confirms this. Most notable was the ‘split voting’ witnessed in the Odisha elections, which were held simultaneously with the 2019 parliamentary polls. While Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD) romped home with a handsome majority in the assembly, its Lok Sabha tally came down, while BJP gained seven seats.

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In many ways, the real competitiveness is now in state elections. Quite frankly, this was evident in 2018 itself when BJP suffered electoral setbacks in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. BJP later manoeuvred itself back to power in MP and has now cemented its position. But what became clear then is even clearer now: BJP will need to find ways to work with other parties — regional and sub-regional — besides making it worthwhile for those who choose to defect.

Here, one has a few models in play. One is Thackeray himself. He has realised the value of keeping his channels open with BJP, even if through institutional conversations with the PM. It helps Shiv Sena convey, where needed, to Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Congress that Thackeray is not devoid of options. Just as it is for Nitish Kumar, a window of compromise with the old ally is never off the table. But for now, staying on the fence works better for Thackeray, both in terms of importance and survival.

Then there are CMs like Patnaik and Jagan Mohan Reddy, who are open to issue-based arrangements in the interest of their states. Both these CMs, for instance, supported GoI’s shift back to centralised procurement of Covid vaccines after a month-long experiment of a separate procurement pipeline for states. Incidentally, Congress CMs like Amarinder Singh and Ashok Gehlot don’t necessarily want to maintain an antagonistic relationship with the Centre. Besides this, there are a bunch of Congress leaders — old and young — who are willing to explore options with BJP.

And this brings us to BJP’s internal politics. Often, we forget the India’s right wing is also a mega coalition of various outfits strung together within the Sangh Parivar. There are competing interests in this sphere, too, some of which have surfaced in the ongoing quest for unity in Uttar Pradesh ahead of next year’s assembly polls. As more and more BJP-ruled states go to polls, these issues will emerge. There will be factions, challengers and dissenters who will need to be placated, simply because of their increased potential to cause damage from the outside. That’s where the extent to which outsiders can be accommodated within BJP will also become important.

Will the Horses Bolt?

By making Himanta Biswa Sarma, an ex-Congress leader, CM of an important state like Assam, BJP has sent out a strong signal to others willing to join its fold that they would be treated on capability, and not be ‘second rung’. How this pans out in terms of more Congressmen joining BJP will be watched. But the window for old-school ‘conversation’ is very much open.

What all this boils down to is a working principle that regardless of where your politics is, the political compulsions and priorities of the present is to govern from the centre. And, therefore, benefits will accrue to the political entity that straddles, and controls, the middle ground.

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