When the BJP came to power as the single largest party leading the NDA it was thought that the coalition era was over after 30 years. However there are a growing number of regional chieftains holding sway over their respective fiefdoms since then. So it may be too early to predict the 2019 poll results.
The BJP is not new to coalition dharma. There was a time when the party was untouchable and it was Atal Behari Vajpayee, the liberal face of the party who encouraged allies and formed the BJP-led NDA government of 24 partners in 1998. Vajpayee knew how to handle difficult allies and regular meetings of NDA leaders were the hallmark of the Vajpayee-L K Advani phase.
In 2014, it was a different story as the BJP had more than a simple majority but Prime Minister Modi decided to take along the 29 partners. Some of the allies like Shiv Sena, Akali Dal and Telugu Desam found places in the Modi cabinet. The BJP has added some more allies to the NDA stable like the PDP, the Bodo Party and AGP in the past two years while some like the MDMK and DMDK from Tamil Nadu have also left the alliance.
As of now the BJP is ruling nine states - Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Goa, Haryana, Maharashtra, Assam and Jharkhand. In six other states - Punjab, Nagaland, Jammu & Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh - it shares power with NDA partners.
Interestingly, the BJP had invited the partners for the swearing-in ceremony of the Assam chief minister and also for the Modi government's second birthday celebrations. The presence of the NDA leaders in the Modi tableau is significant. Sure enough, the ambitious BJP may not immediately dump its partners but there is no doubt that Modi wants to humour them. When Modi completed his first year in office it was a total BJP show. This shows a change in the BJP attitude towards allies. The BJP has come to realize that it needs the allies for some more time. Also, the major allies are directly trying to expand their own base while the BJP too has its own expansion plan, which can only be at the cost of the allies. Moreover the Modi government needs the support of the allies in Rajya Sabha where the BJP is in a minority.
The past two years had seen some public spats between the BJP and its allies. They have many grouses against 'big brother BJP.' First of all, there had been no reshuffle for the past two years. Some like the Sena wanted an important portfolio but so far there has been no change. Secondly, they feel that the BJP does not consult them on issues. The NDA meetings are few. Sena, TDP and Akali Dal have been eyeing the NDA convener post. In 2015, in the first meeting with NDA constituent leaders after coming to power, the partners demanded better communication, more consultation and better floor coordination.
The allies had become emboldened after the BJP's humiliating Bihar defeat. The murmur continued this year with the result that just before the budget session BJP chief Amit Shah met the NDA leaders to mollify them. Some like Sukhbir Badal; the Deputy Chief Minister of Punjab bluntly told Shah that the BJP should not take allies for granted. This damage control exercise somewhat mollified the allies who were irked with the BJP's "arrogant" behaviour. Shah assured that NDA meetings would be held at regular intervals. How do the allies view the Modi regime? The Sena - BJP relationship has soured not only at the national level but also at the state level. The two are trying to edge out each other in the state, and often indulge in public spats. Taking a dig at Modi's radio address, 'Mann Ki Baat', Sena supremo Uddhav Thackeray said: "Instead of telling your Mann Ki Baat to people, the party (BJP) needs to understand what is in the minds of the public." The Sena came out strongly over imposition of President's rule in Uttarakhand recently.
The Akali-BJP relationship has been on the slide even as the Punjab elections are scheduled for next year and a section in the BJP wants to go at it alone, fearing anti-incumbency. However Punjab has been asking for a special package to overcome the financial crisis but the Centre has not accepted this demand.
Too much is at stake for the Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu who needs a huge financial package to build his new capital at Amaravati. Naidu talks about bigger issues like the BJP strengthening its allies.
The PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti showed distrust with coalition partner BJP and wanted reassurance on the agenda of governance after her father Mufti Sayeed's death. Ultimately the issue was settled after three months in March when Mehbooba became the chief minister.
It is significant that the BJP wants to keep the door open for tactical alliances in future and also keep the flock together. It may take some time for the BJP to go solo. There are many more Assembly polls before 2019.The Assam model has given the BJP hope for replicating in other states. Perhaps both have come to realize that the BJP needs the allies as much as the allies need them.
Kalyani Shankar is an Indian political commentator