A key campaign plank of the Bharatiya Janata Party is that it can provide strong and stable leadership as opposed to a chaotic “grand alliance” of the opposition. But here is the irony. The BJP may have had a majority on its own in 2014, but it still runs a coalition government of the National Democratic Alliance.
More significantly, it is attempting to maintain and even widen this alliance, repair bridges with sulking partners, and prepare for a post-poll landscape where it may need forces not currently a part of the NDA. Even as all the attention is on the opposition “mahagatbandhan”, the BJP’s quieter coalition building merits attention.
There is a realisation in the top ranks of the party that replicating the 2014 majority is difficult. The party swept north, west and central India — losses here are inevitable. Its possible gains in the east and south will not compensate. And it is this calculation that has led the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine to become far more pragmatic.
The first sign of this was in Bihar. Nitish Kumar demanded an equal and respectable share in the alliance. For BJP, which had won 22 of the 40 seats on its own in the state, this meant scaling down its own ambition. Yet, it agreed to contesting only 17 seats, and giving the same number to Kumar because it realised the risks of Kumar moving to the grand alliance or a three way contest would hurt it. Similar signs are now visible in Maharashtra.
Shiv Sena has been an old ally, but few have been as critical and bitter about Modi and Shah as its leaders. Recognising that a combined Congress-Nationalist Congress Party challenge would be difficult to meet and a triangular contest harm the party, the BJP went the extra mile with the Sena.
Despite being the senior partner, BJP agreed to give 23 of the 48 seats to the Sena in the Lok Sabha, and contest an equal number of seats in the assembly. A similar exercise in coalition building was witnessed in Tamil Nadu too, where BJP is weak and knew it needed the AIADMK and the PMK.
It is not just formal alliances. The BJP is also keeping channels of communication open with three prospective partners– the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha, the Telangana Rashtriya Samithi in Telangana, and YSR Congress Party in Andhra Pradesh. These outfits cannot ally with BJP before polls but could provide a cushion if numbers fall short. BJP may have a PM face that the opposition lacks. It may also win more seats than any other party. But the contest in 2019 will be between two broad coalitions. The BJP is stitching its own even as it seeks to discredit the one of the opposition.