The profusion of small parties in the fray presents an opportunity and a headache for the established national and regional parties. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has clearly outpaced the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). But merely winning more seats than the UPA is not enough. With many influential regional leaders yet to clarify their stand on Narendra Modi, the NDA will want to notch 272 seats on its own, rather than scramble later for post-poll partners or outside support. In this context, the BJP gambit of stitching up alliances with fringe parties and once-estranged leaders — even at the cost of gifting away many seats to them — is changing the rules of the game. In 2009, unrecognised small parties and independents won 21 seats and polled 5.34 crore votes. While it is impossible to mop up all these votes, the BJP’s initiatives in Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh (UP) and the North-East merits attention.
In these states, the BJP has roped in parties with proven localised support bases but inadequate to win parliamentary contests on their own steam. These were parties unable or unwilling to ally with the Congress or the dominant regional players. Bereft of a national plank, these parties appeared rudderless until the BJP chose to make them relevant. In Tamil Nadu, the lead players, DMK and the AIADMK, held back from seat-sharing talks with the DMDK, MDMK and the PMK, questioning the returns past alliances with these parties fetched. With the AIADMK cold to its overtures and the DMK sullied by the 2G scam and a long association with the Congress, the BJP’s six-party coalition can capitalise on the groundswell of support in favour of Modi in Tamil Nadu.
The alliance with Ramdas Athavale’s Republican Party of India in Maharashtra, Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP in Bihar, Jayaprakash Narayan’s Lok Satta party in Andhra Pradesh, and Anupriya Patel’s Apna Dal in UP — four parties that drew a blank in the 2009 general elections — will give the BJP more muscle. The RPI and LJP could wean Dalits towards the BJP and the Apna Dal’s Kurmi votebank in Eastern UP has become crucial after Modi’s candidature from Varanasi. The admission of BS Yeddyurappa’s Karnataka Janata Paksha and B Sriramulu’s BSR Congress, after acting as spoilers in the 2013 assembly elections, indicates the BJP’s resolve to notch up every seat despite the loss of face, and the anti-corruption plank to boot.
Opinion polls claim that the newly-minted NDA will spoil Jayalalithaa’s ambition of sweeping Tamil Nadu’s 39 seats. In neighbouring Andhra and Telangana, a similar pro-BJP sentiment is driving the Telugu Desam and the Telangana Rashtriya Samiti (TRS) into the NDA fold. By offering 14 seats to DMDK, eight to PMK, seven to MDMK, and tactically retaining only eight for itself in Tamil Nadu, the BJP is closer to securing a firm toehold in three of four South Indian states. With eleven parties under the North-East Regional Parties Forum also joining the NDA, the BJP’s claims to breaching its final frontiers, the South and the North-East, are credible. Despite its Hindu nationalist credentials, the BJP’s openness to ally with caste-based and regional parties and vice versa indicates the peculiarities of India’s fragmented polity.
Power and shifting public perceptions have driven the desertions and admissions that the NDA and the UPA have witnessed this past decade. This state of flux notwithstanding, the broad-basing of power makes coalition politics an enduring phenomenon.