The regional parties can smell blood after a tight contest in Gujarat and bypoll results in Rajasthan. They see the prospect of a hung Parliament and the return of true coalition governments which would enhance their bargaining power.
Even some right-wing columnists like Minhaz Merhant, Swapan Dasgupta, and recently, Rajesh Jain have voiced their apprehensions about a Narendra Modi sweep of the scale of 2014 being repeated in 2019.
I have been saying this for long that since BJP has peaked in many states, it is difficult for the party to maintain its previous tally, and there isn’t enough scope to compensate for the loss of seats. This means we are staring at a depleted BJP in Lok Sabha in 2019, though it may continue to be the single largest party.
The Telugu Desam Party (TDP), which has 15 Members of Parliaments (MP), is on the verge of leaving the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Its MPs have been at odds with the government on the granting of special status to Andhra Pradesh. Even though truce has been achieved for now, the alliance stands on shaky grounds.
The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), BJP’s oldest allies, have also voiced concerns advising PM Narendra Modi to practice Atal coalition dharma.
BJP has also dumped Naga People’s Front for the newly floated Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party just few days before the state polls. Some of the allies are apprehensive of BJP’s ambition to grow in their backyard, and are even fed up with their arm-twisting tactics.
Why Regional Parties Are A Threat To BJP-Congress Dominance?
The performance of the regional parties has been stable over the years. Since 1952 to 2014, in the Lok Sabha elections, the aggregate vote share of the two parties, Congress and BJP, has averaged 51 percent, while that of regional parties and independents has averaged 49 percent.
While Congress maintained its centrist position in Indian polity in earlier years after Independence, parties like SAD, Bangla Congress, and DMK demanding regional autonomy sprang up to challenge Congress’ dominance.
In 1967, out of 21 states, non-Congress governments were installed in nine states (43 percent). This assault was massive, and hit at the core of Congress’ one party dominance since its formation in 1885.
The seeds of a first non-Congress government at the Centre were sown in many ways in 1967, and in a decade’s time, the nation saw its first non-Congress PM when a united opposition, consisting of many regional parties, contested under Janata Party banner.
The entire east coast from West Bengal to Orissa to Andhra Pradesh to Tamil Nadu has been a den of regional parties.
From 1989 to 2009, regional parties played a key role in each government formation at the Centre, as any single party failed to get a majority. Regional parties have recorded 220 odd seats in all elections except for 1991, when Congress got a boost post Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.
The combined seat tally of BJP and Congress has been in the range of 280-320, except for 1991.
The Resurgence of NDA and Where They Are Failing Now
Regional parties usually want to be in the good books of the powers at the Centre, and that’s why we have seen many parties jumping ship from NDA to UPA, and are now back in NDA.
The NDA was formed just before the 1998 Lok Sabha Elections, and comprised 14 parties, which increased to 17 parties in 1999. However, in 2004, allies such as Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party, Omar Abdullah’s National Conference and the DMK, started to desert NDA.
Many parties changed sides after Vajpayee’s loss, prominent ones being Trinamool Congress, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and Rashtriya Lok Dal.
After the loss of 2004, the NDA was reduced to just three parties – BJP, Shiv Sena and SAD until mid 2013, when Modi was announced as PM candidate. With conditions building in favour of Modi and BJP in the run up to the elections, the number of parties in NDA swelled back to more than 20.
In 2014, after 30 years, a single party, the BJP, got an absolute majority which ended 2.5 decades of influence of regional parties on governance.
Although ministries have been allocated to NDA allies, the BJP is running the show without consulting them on key issues. This has been brought to the fore by the two oldest allies, Shiv Sena and SAD, who have stood rock solid behind BJP for all these years.
Power at the Centre has moved from Congress to the BJP, but the increase in BJP’s vote share has largely been at the expense of the latter. The two parties together bagged 50.8 percent vote share in 2014, which is similar to their combined long term average of 51 percent.
Regional parties and independents won 49.2 percent near to their long term average of 49 percent, with independents having a small share of 3.2 percent. While the BJP and Congress bagged approximately 27.8 crore votes in 2014, serious regional players bagged 23.6 crore votes, with independents at 1.7 crores and hopeless contestants recorded the balance of 1.7 crore votes.
The sheer size and die-hard vote block of regional parties shows that they may play a key role in government formation at the Centre in 2019.
Congress performance is bound to improve in 2019, which will likely be at the expense of BJP, going by the past trends. A hung Parliament cannot be ruled out, though it is difficult to ascertain the degree of shortfall.
It’s because of this arithmetic that regional parties see themselves as kingmakers again. BJP should be nervous, start treating allies with respect, and keep them in good humour. As SAD MP Naresh Gujral recently quipped, “It is in BJP’s interest to not ride roughshod over the interests of its allies.”
Allies are not lifelong partners and are itching to hit back.
This article was first published in TheQuint.