Although the Bharatiya Janata Party has successfully managed the National Democratic Alliance for almost five years, it now faces some crucial existential decisions about its alliances. In some ways, the BJP’s dilemma is a mirror image of the dilemma the Congress faces. The Congress was a national party, whose support base has now been considerably depleted, forcing it to look for allies. The BJP, on the other hand, has come to power on the basis of its ability to craft coalitions. But it will soon have to decide whether it wants to enhance its national standing through allies, or enhance its share of seats so that it becomes less dependent upon allies. Will it, in other words, be tempted to be become a national party'
Initially, many observers thought that the imperative of seeking alliances would moderate the BJP; it would have to ideologically compromise in order to be politically acceptable. Therefore the NDA agenda avoided controversial issues like Ayodhya and Kashmir. But political circumstances have changed considerably over the last two years. First, there are no longer any ideological taboos in Indian politics. Most of the NDA partners made little noise over Gujarat, and none has seriously objected to Ayodhya being put on the political agenda. But the BJP has also played the coalition game very well. It is now a surplus majority coalition in Parliament, which means that the exit of any single alliance partner is not sufficient to bring the government down.
By gathering more and more allies, it has diminished the power of any single member of the NDA alliance. This is one of the reasons why NDA partners have become less assertive now than when the coalition was first formed. The BJP has the upper hand in bargains, and it has become impossible for any single alliance partner to exercise a veto on policy at the Centre. It is probably not a coincidence that Ayodhya is back on the political agenda, despite its absence from the NDA’s common programme. In order to block the BJP, three or four of its major alliance partners will have to act together. But because its alliance partners are regionally concentrated, they have few interests in common. Coalition politics will not therefore necessarily lead to moderation, if the party in power has surplus majority in Parliament.
But the BJP is now pondering over what the price of this success is going to be. The BJP has tried the experiment to become as legitimate as any party is in the political spectrum by trying to attract a wide range of allies: from Dalits in the North, to the Dravidian parties in the South. But two of its key alliances, with the Bahujan Samaj Party (an ally till the other day) and the Shiv Sena, are with parties that are its close competitors in the relevant states. The BJP realized that in UP that the BSP stands in the way of the BJP’s further expansion in the state. In fact, many have argued that in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP-BSP alliance may even have had a detrimental effect on the BJP’s traditional support base within the state. As the general elections approach, these contradictions are going to surface more prominently.
E. Sridharan of the University of Pennsylvania has pointed out in a recent paper that BJP’s alliance dilemma will also haunt it in states where it is relatively weak. The BJP’s expansion strategy in the South has been predicated upon making slow encroachments by seeking alliances. These alliances give the BJP a toehold in states like Andhra Pradesh. But these alliances also limit its long run expansion. N. Chandrababu Naidu might contemplate giving the BJP some room in Andhra, so long as the end result is not more than four or five seats for the BJP. But the minute the BJP looks to expand its base, it becomes a threat to its regional alliance partner. Hence its allies have every reason to limit its expansion in their states.
The dilemma this poses for the BJP is this. Will the BJP be content to remain a regionally concentrated party, capable of winning somewhere in the region of one hundred and eighty to two hundred seats at the maximum, or will it want to become a genuine national party capable of reaching the two hundred and fifty mark on its own' Until now, the BJP’s base was so slim in the South that this question was moot. But this question will increasingly become relevant. As the action of the BJP allies has shown, the South is not as averse to the politics of Hindutva as we used to assume. And the BJP, in the right circumstances, may be able to play the card of being a relative newcomer to the South fairly effectively.
The BJP’s expansion will require a major ideological, mobilizational and organizational effort. But, if the last fifteen years were any guide, it would be foolish to underestimate its capacities to do so. The question is: will it want to' On the one hand, alliances help it secure power easily; on the other, alliances limit its future expansion. Will the BJP be ambitious and launch an expansionary push, or will it be conservative and stick to more or less what it has'
As the BJP knows from its own history, it is easier for it to mount a massive ideological push if it is not in power. The best guess one can make is that the BJP will probably be accommodating to its allies in its bid to retain power at the Centre. But if it fails to do so after the next election, and an alternative front emerges, it will not only radicalize its agenda but also seek newer and newer constituencies.
Oddly enough, losing an election might give it just the freedom it needs to make a big push towards being a national party. And who knows: losing the election, if it is not a huge loss, might even be a blessing in disguise for the BJP. We could end up with an unstable government that strengthens the BJP’s long-term credentials to be a governing party. The BJP will be free to do what it does best: play the politics of religious brinkmanship and hope for an ideological expansion. And a Congress government, if past actions are any guide, might even be tempted to build the BJP’s temple for it.
But the BJP will sooner or later have to confront a serious question. Does it operate under the limits set by its current geographical and social base' Or does it have greater ambitions' If it has greater ambitions, its allies, more than its enemies will stand in the way. The dilemma for the BJP is that in politics you can flounder as much by not having further ambitions as by having them.