Notionally, the BJP’s remarkable victories in UP, Gujarat, Goa and Uttarakhand in 2022 might well be a bellwether for the nine Assembly elections scheduled to be held this year, especially those in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, where the BJP goes head-to-head with the Congress, and in Karnataka, where a third player, the Janata Dal (Secular), still matters, before heeling up for the battle of 2024. While the win in Himachal Pradesh was the only solace for the Congress amid serial electoral setbacks, the poll outcome of the three Hindi-belt states and Karnataka could be a pointer to how receptive people were towards Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, and conversely, to the impact that the BJP’s counter campaign against the Congress leader’s countrywide peregrination has.
The Congress is not so much of an obstacle for the BJP as are the regional forces that have to be contained in order to rule independently without the ‘baggage’ of a coalition.
Elections apart, the BJP’s seemingly secure position at the Centre and some of the 16 states it rules (12 with its allies) does not imply that it is not up against challenges of which PM Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, the BJP’s principal strategist, are acutely aware. Hence, they are constantly revising and increasing the number of Lok Sabha seats calling for special attention from them.
Mediating the anxieties and issues that have cropped up between the Centre and states which are keen to assert their identity is one such test that will summon Delhi’s prowess in keeping the equilibrium which has already disappeared according to the non-BJP governments. The problem is that a BJP-governed state has felt the heat of the Centre’s eagerness to exercise its writ — gratuitously some would say — for the first time. This is Karnataka, which votes in May. On December 30, Shah, who is also the cooperation (read cooperatives) minister, suggested in Mandya — which houses the state’s top five milk unions — that Gujarat’s Amul and Nandini, Karnataka’s signature dairy brand, would ‘work together towards establishing dairies in every village of Karnataka’. Amul, he added, would give the back-up in the technical, cooperative and functioning sectors to the Karnataka Milk Federation, and Karnataka and Gujarat could work for the welfare of dairy farmers.
Shah’s statement was promptly construed as an affront to Karnataka’s ‘pride and self-respect’. HD Kumaraswamy, the JD(S) leader, said as much in a tweet. He said the milk federation was ‘not only a lifeline of our farmers’ but also a symbol of the ‘pride and self-respect of Kannadigas’. ‘Better if Shah can understand this,’ he warned. Congress leader and former CM Siddaramaiah hinted at Shah harbouring a deeper motive. ‘Eyes of the Gujarat corporate are now fixed on the golden egg-laying goose. It is an attempt to rob Karnataka,’ he alleged. In a fix, the BJP’s ministers tried to clarify that no Amul-Nandini merger was afoot and their own dairy resources would ‘100 per cent remain independent’.
The Opposition, which rummaged a pile of issues but never latched on to one because it was defensive about communalism and corruption, believed that the Amul-Nandini one was a ‘godsend’ because it touched ‘Kannadiga asmita’, to use BJP’s pet phrase. The Opposition reversed the role but Shah was not one to abandon his ideas.
In Maharashtra, the BJP acquired a government after splitting and usurping a dominant faction of the Shiv Sena but the Sena’s CM Eknath Shinde is a beleaguered gentleman who was unsure of losing his flock to the BJP under Delhi’s vigilant stare. The BJP has already signalled that it wants some of the Lok Sabha seats which the undivided Sena won in 2019 and which are now in the Shinde faction’s quota when a dispute arose over Buldhana, held by the Sena. Shinde and his colleagues have let on that in the joust for seats in the prestigious Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections, the BJP wanted to contest the bulk, because by its reckoning, it was weary of riding on the Sena’s back for decades and wanted the BMC under its belt without a partner.
When Modi was re-elected in 2019, he helmed a 21-member NDA coalition despite the BJP commanding a comfortable majority. The contradiction between the two circumstances was manifest from the start. The BJP, which secured larger numbers than in 2014, did not need the allies. If the coalition was retained, it was more to grandstand and demonstrate that the BJP was ‘magnanimous’ even at the pinnacle of its success. That was easier said than done. The BJP’s attitude towards the constituents was patronising, as though they were tethered to its whip hand. In a matter of time, three old allies, each with its base and regional influence, walked out of the NDA. The Shiv Sena (that later split), the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Janata Dal (United) found the present regime stifling.
Therefore, it is apparent that in expanding its territorial domain before the next Lok Sabha polls, the BJP is unlikely to court a major ally, especially in its target areas of West Bengal, Odisha and Telangana. Tamil Nadu is an exception but the BJP is undecided which of the AIADMK factions would suit its agenda. The BJP has peaked in most parts of the North and the West, as the 2014 and 2019 verdicts showed. From that privileged perch, its numbers can only decline. So, if it has to maintain parity and add to its tally, new geographical conquests beckon.
This is why of the nine states voting this year, Telangana acquired significance, because for the BJP, it was a low-hanging fruit about to be plucked from the hands of the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (formerly the Telangana Rashtra Samithi). The ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ slogan is not so much of a challenge before the BJP, given the Congress’s uninspiring state, as containing the regional forces in order to rule independently without the ‘baggage’ of a coalition.
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