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Coalition Compulsions: How Modi's Third Term Hinges On Allies

The BJP has little scope to win allies from the INDIA bloc or those outside any alliance, making the party heavily dependent on the current NDA partners

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock
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In 2008, when the Left parties, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), threatened to pull the plug on the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government on the issue of the Indo-US nuclear deal, the Left thought they could prevent the government from going ahead with the agreement.

The Manmohan Singh-led UPA-I came to power in 2004 after the rather unexpected defeat of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. As India gave a split verdict, the UPA’s tally of 225 seats fell 47 short of the majority mark. The NDA lagged further behind with 189 seats.

The Left bloc, which had 61 MPs, helped the UPA form the government by extending external support—without joining the government. They wanted to keep the BJP at bay.

But there were still a few more crucial players—parties that were not part of any alliance had another 74 seats. These parties, including the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), had 36 and 19 seats, respectively. The SP and the BSP had a rather acrimonious relationship with the Congress.

However, when the Left parties decided to withdraw support, the then SP Chief Mulayam Singh Yadav came to the government’s rescue. A trust vote saw the government winning with the support of the SP, some cross-voting from the NDA, with a few MPs abstaining.

In Parliament, PM Singh alleged that the Left parties wanted him “to behave as their bonded slave”. He was evidently relieved to find a new ally, one less troublesome than the Left.

However, in 2024, the NDA lacks additional options to let go of an ally. When Narendra Modi was sworn in as PM, the BJP’s tally stood at 240—32 seats short of a majority. With another 53 seats from the allies, the NDA’s strength stood at 293.

The very composition of the INDIA bloc makes it difficult for the BJP to win allies. The components of the INDIA bloc have their own internal competition at the regional level.

Neither its largest ally, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP), nor the second-largest ally, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) JD(U) can topple the government on its own. The TDP has 16 MPs and the JD(U) has 12. However, any of them quitting and joining the opposition camp would put the government’s survival in jeopardy.

The four largest parties after the BJP belong to the opposition alliance, the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance, popularly called the INDIA bloc. They are the Congress with 99 seats, the SP with 33, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) with 29 seats and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) with 22 seats.

Other INDIA bloc members include the Shiv Sena (UBT) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), with nine and eight seats, respectively, the Left parties with nine seats and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) with four seats. The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) have three seats each. Tamil Nadu-based Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi and the Jammu & Kashmir National Conference have two seats each. The INDIA bloc has the backing of six other parties with 1 MP each.

Tightrope Walk

As of June 2024, the NDA government has a slim chance of gaining support from the opposition camp. The very composition of the INDIA bloc makes it difficult for the BJP to win allies. The components of the INDIA bloc have their own internal competition at the regional level. Keeping that aside, they came under a unified banner at the national level essentially to fight the BJP. For almost all of them, joining hands with the BJP could be suicidal.

At the same time, there is very little strength outside the NDA and the INDIA bloc—only 15 MPs. Of them, four are from the Jagan Mohan Reddy-led YSR Congress Party, which may join the NDA only if Naidu’s TDP withdraws support.

Of the remaining parties, Telangana-based All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), Punjab-based Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), Meghalaya-based Voice of the People Party (VPP) and Mizoram-based Zoram People’s Movement (ZPM) have one MP each. Their support base makes it difficult for them to back the BJP.

Of the seven independents, Bihar’s Rajesh Ranjan alias Pappu Yadav won due to a consolidation of Muslim votes in his favour and is unlikely to support the BJP. Maharashtra’s Vishal Patil was a Congress leader who contested as an independent after his Sangli constituency fell in the Shiv Sena (UBT)’s quota. After winning, he promptly declared his allegiance to the Congress. The independent winners from Kashmir’s Baramulla and Ladakh—Sheikh Abdul Rashid and Mohmad Haneefa, respectively—are considered unlikely to come to the BJP’s aid.

Two independents who won from Punjab—Amritpal Singh and Sarabjeet Singh Khalsa—are known as Sikh radicals. Their moves might be unpredictable. Only Daman & Diu’s independent MP, Umeshbhai Babubhai Patel, has made it clear he can support any camp, depending on what he can extract for his voters.

While the BJP’s chances of gaining strength appear low, INDIA bloc members believe they have a chance of winning over NDA members in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, especially on issues like conducting a caste census or revoking the Agnipath Scheme of temporary recruitment in the Army.

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The BJP is opposed to both demands, but these issues are sensitive to Bihar and UP-based NDA members like JD(U), the Chirag Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), the Jayant Chaudhary-led Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), Anupriya Patel’s Apna Dal (Soneylal) and the Jitan Ram Manjhi-led Hindustan Awam Morcha (Secular). The LJP has five MPs, the RLD has two, and Patel and Manjhi are the sole MPs of their parties.

“A strong movement by INDIA bloc parties on these two issues, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, can make these allies feel uncomfortable,” says a TMC leader, who does not want to be named.

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The TMC leader says, “The INDIA bloc partners should aggressively try to reduce the NDA and the BJP’s strength.” Once the INDIA bloc parties start pushing these issues, along with the farmers’ protest, the BJP will have to offer its allies some incentives to stand their ground, says the leader.

BJP leaders, however, argue that pulling the plug on the government without a polarising issue would be difficult for its allies, as none would like to take the blame for triggering a mid-term election. “Everyone is aware how the Vajpayee government’s defeat by one vote in the 1999 no-confidence motion led to our return to power with a bigger majority in the election that ensued,” says a BJP MP.

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The BJP MP feels that equations that are at present unimaginable may once again emerge in the future. “Don’t be surprised if one fine morning or night, the BJP reaches out to Shiv Sena (UBT) chief Uddhav Thackeray’s doors, offering him the leadership of the NDA in Maharashtra and facilitating a reunion of the two factions,” he says. “It may sound crazy now, but politics keeps bringing new shocks and surprises.”

The opposition parties, on the other hand, hope that the Maharashtra election results may encourage some Eknath Shinde-led Shiv Sena MPs to return to Thackeray’s fold.

Mixed Experiences

India’s experience with coalition governments has been mixed. The first seven coalition governments collapsed—the Janata Party’s Morarji Desai government (1977-79), the Janata Party (Secular)’s Charan Singh government (1979), the V P Singh-led Janata Dal government (1989-90), Chandra Shekhar’s Janata Dal (Socialist) government (I990-91), H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral’s Janata Dal (Secular) governments (1996-97 and 1997-98, respectively) and Vajpayee’s NDA government (1998-99).

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However, the three following coalition governments survived—Vajpayee’s NDA government (1999-2004) and Singh’s UPA I (2004-09) and UPA II (2009-14) governments.

Now, after 10 years of the BJP’s majority government when alliance partners had little scope to bargain, India is back to coalition politics.

One big difference in this coalition government is that the person at the helm of affairs, Modi, has never had to run a government dependent on allies since he assumed charge as Gujarat chief minister in October 2001. His first two terms as PM were backed by a strong mandate in favour of the BJP—282 seats in 2014 and 303 in 2019. Allies had little scope to influence policy decisions. The loss of allies did not cost the BJP much at the national level.

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One big difference in this coalition government is that Modi has never had to run a government dependent on allies since he became Gujarat’s chief minister in October 2001.

However, at the state level, the BJP has time and again failed to keep coalitions intact—be it the conflict with Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray in Maharashtra in 2019 or Nitish Kumar’s flip-flops.

During the protests in 2020 against the three farm laws—which were ultimately revoked—the BJP lost its old ally, SAD, which feared it could lose its own base should they continue with the BJP. Their exit did not have much of an impact on the Modi government, as they only had two MPs, but it impacted the party’s prospects in Punjab. Besides, the SAD was the BJP’s oldest ally and the late SAD patriarch, Parkash Singh Badal, had described the SAD-BJP relations as ‘nau-maas da rishta (ties like nails and flesh).

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However, instead of trying to win them over, the BJP’s then Punjab unit president, Ashwani Sharma, said that BJP workers in the state had long been demanding snapping ties with the SAD. In 2024, the BJP party failed to clinch a deal with the SAD and both of them performed poorly in Punjab.

The BJP’s relations with Naidu’s TDP have not been smooth either. In 2018, ahead of the Andhra Pradesh assembly elections, Naidu left the NDA, accusing the Modi government of not keeping its promise of granting special status to the state. He has been demanding this since the bifurcation of undivided Andhra Pradesh in 2014. It continues to be a key demand of the TDP.

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Notably, within days of Naidu leaving the NDA in 2018, the federal investigation agency, the Directorate of Enforcement (ED), reached his doorstep. Naidu had then taken potshots at the Modi government. Both sides are likely to remember these bitter experiences.

In Haryana, the BJP’s alliance with Dushyant Chautala’s Jannayak Janta Party (JJP) has been strained over the past five years. In the 2019 assembly election, the BJP was able to form the government due to the support of 10 JJP MLAs. However, their alliance came to an end in March 2024. After the BJP government faced a crisis with three independent MLAs withdrawing support, the BJP targeted the JJP for allegedly poaching to get the required numbers.

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Political observers believe that all regional parties remember how the BJP tries to harm its allies when they decide to part ways. Apart from the high-profile conflict with the Shiv Sena, the BJP made a similar attempt with the JD(U) in 2022. The Bihar chief minister had then taken potshots at the BJP for trying to break his and every other party. Now, the BJP needs Kumar desperately, but does Kumar need the BJP?

Thus, the reduced numbers of the BJP have put the NDA government at the Centre in a spot of bother and opened new opportunities for its coalition partners, feel political observers.

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“The result has been a big setback for Modi. It has given a new lease of life to the regional parties after a decade. The regionalisation of Indian politics, which was temporarily halted, has returned with a bang,” says political scientist Satish K Jha.

Jha says the election has “sent out a clear message that Indian society is a rainbow coalition in itself”. He says, “Any attempt at homogenisation and steamrolling its diversity is bound to face resistance.” He, however, warns that it would be premature to write off Modi and his brand of politics.

(This appeared in the print as 'Coalition Compulsions')

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