Now that State parties have come out of their comfort zones to make a foray into national politics, the BJP has to opt for State-specific strategies to emerge victorious in the general election
Regional parties will be the king-makers in the ensuing Lok Sabha election. Even the New York Times last week pointed out, “Most analysts believe neither Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), nor the Indian National Congress will win an outright majority. That means regional and caste-based parties will probably become the king-makers…”
Despite the ‘Modi wave’ riding high, the combined strength of regional parties in the 2014 poll was 212 seats. This proves that they cannot be ignored. Their vote share, too, was almost equal. Regional satraps like West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa held their sway over their respective States.
The BJP might have a tough time fighting these parties. As a strategy, the saffron party will have to face the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) combine in Uttar Pradesh, ally with the Janata Dal (United) to take on the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) coalition in Bihar, try to expand in West Bengal and Odisha and wait for a post-poll deal with the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and the YSR Congress Party, as well as the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu.
Interestingly, going for a straight fight with the Congress might be an easy task for the BJP than facing different regional parties in these States. Confronting it could just be ‘Congress-bashing’ but it needs different narratives to counter different regional parties like the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), YSR Congress, TRS, Biju Janata Dal (BJD), Trinamool Congress (TMC), Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and AIADMK, who have pitted regional narratives to counter the nationalist narrative of the BJP.
In the south, where the regional parties hold sway, the BJP won just 22 seats in 2014 despite the Modi wave. It has no allies in the southern States — the BJP’s attempt to strike an alliance with the AIADMK and the DMK in the post-Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi era has failed so far. Kerala oscillates between two major coalitions, the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Left Democratic Front (LDF); while Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are under the hold of regional satraps.
There is a mushroom growth of regional parties since caste-based identity politics emerged in the 1980s. They work on four major planks — autonomy, (parties like National Conference), statehood (earlier Telangana and now the Aam Aadmi Party), identity (Shiv Sena) and development. Often, they combine two or more of these for their emergence.
There are several reasons for the growth of regional parties like disenchantment with national parties, craving for development, emergence of strong regional leaders and emotional issues that catch the attention of the public. In some States like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Bihar and Telangana, regional parties have succeeded in achieving significant success by addressing issues of development and governance. In Tamil Nadu, Governments led by the AIADMK or the DMK have performed well in public health. In Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, State Governments have done well in dealing with natural disasters.
Vote share of these regional parties, too has grown in the last two decades. Even in the recent Assembly polls in Telangana and Mizoram, it was the regional parties that performed well, a post-2014 trend clearly visible in States with sizeable presence of non-BJP and non-Congress parties. Also, in most State Assembly elections, the BJP’s loss was at the hands of regional parties. Therefore, it is clear that regional parties may play an important role in the general election.
Interestingly, some regional parties have national ambitions too. While Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu is working for a national anti-BJP front, his bête noire, K Chandrashekhar Rao, is aiming to form a federal front of non-BJP and non-Congress parties to take on the BJP.
The SP-BSP-RLD alliance in Uttar Pradesh might hurt the BJP in the State. They contested the recent Lok Sabha and Assembly by-elections together with stunning results. Realising the importance, the Congress is stitching alliances with regional parties in several States. It is going to be a direct fight between the BJP and the Congress in at least five major States — Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Haryana. In other States, regional parties will wield power.
The Congress has struck alliances with some of them. This includes Maharashtra (Nationalist Congress Party), Kerala (UDF), Karnataka (JDS), Jammu & Kashmir (National Conference) Tamil Nadu (DMK), Bihar (RJD) and Jharkhand (Jharkhand Mukti Morcha). It is crucial for the Congress and its allies to perform well to cross the halfway mark (272) in the Lower House in the ensuing Lok Sabha election.
If these alliances hold together during the general election, results will be very different from the 2014 elections. Knowing their importance, regional satraps are also flexing their muscles; although only the Congress and the BJP can cross the 50-seat mark. It’s clear that for the BJP, the winning tally will depend largely on how the party copes with these regional parties as they are the main challengers. It must go for a State-specific strategy to fight them.
(The writer is a senior political commentator and syndicated columnist)