There are many things that Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have learnt on their way up the political ladder — from strategic electoral management to the ability to convince voters, make inroads into unfamiliar territories, wrest power and render the Opposition ineffective. But what they haven’t learnt is the art of managing their allies.
The Shiromani Akali Dal’s (SAD) decision to walk out of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) after 22 years — because of its discomfort with the three farm legislation — is yet another example of the Modi-Shah duo’s failure to reach out to their allies, pacify them and accommodate their concerns. From the Telugu Desam Party to Shiv Sena in Maharashtra to Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) in Bihar to the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) in Assam, the list of allies Modi and his lieutenant have lost is a lengthy one. Though the JD (U) and AGP did come back to the NDA fold, their breaking away reflects poorly on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ability to keep its extended family together.
In Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP had ended its alliance with Mehbooba Mufti’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP). This was an unlikely and tricky alliance in any case, but the break-up only highlighted the BJP’s reluctance to keep difficult relationships going.
If Amit Shah is indeed the mastermind Chanakya of Indian politics today, he would know that the invincible rise is not sustainable forever and also logically impossible. If the Modi-Shah combine doesn’t need allies today, it is also smart enough to know that Indian politics is a game of Snakes-and-Ladders of slippery numbers. The Modi government may not need the numbers today, but an angry regional ally, with political resources and energy, can bring about the beginning of ground-level disenchantment, not seen until now.
The BJP’s belief in the farm reforms is right — they were needed and only an undaunted leader like Modi could have pushed them. But the quality of a good leader isn’t merely the ability to push ahead with her/his beliefs. It is also to be able to take everyone along, and have the skill to convince even the worst critics.
What is the need to value or indulge allies, one might ask, when the Modi-Shah duo is on an upward graph and doing supremely well even without them? Well, these allies might seem redundant now, but they will become critical when the party’s fortunes hit a lower trajectory.
True, all political parties like to be on the winning side, but loyal allies will remain with you even during your downward swing. However, if you treat your allies the way Modi and Shah do, rest assured they will want to run in another direction when the BJP goes through a less happy phase.
The absence of coalition dharma
Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee lent to India’s political legacy the ‘coalition dharma’, a fact acknowledged by the Modi-Shah led BJP even after his passing away. The current BJP leadership may have taken the party much beyond what Vajpayee and his lieutenant L. K. Advani could — politically and electorally — but they have also ensured it regresses on one front of following this dharma.
Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have one defining belief in their manner of functioning — my way or the highway. Their tendency to bulldoze their way through and do what they deem beneficial or right overtakes many things, including maintaining decency towards Parliament, the Opposition and the allies.
The manner in which the Modi government has passed a slew of Bills/ordinances in its second term — scrapping Article 370, CAA, triple talaq, RTI amendment and agricultural reforms — shows its complete disregard for building consensus.
This belligerence and obstinacy hasn’t been limited to just rivals. Allies and coalition partners have also been at the receiving end.
The JD (U) had a long alliance with the BJP until Nitish Kumar’s troubles with Modi started brewing and he decided to snap ties in 2013. And this, even before Modi became PM. The acrimony between the two continued and the 2015 Bihar assembly election was fought separately, with the JD (U) forging a mahagathbandhan with the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). The BJP lost that election with the grand alliance sailing through.
The AGP is yet another example of the BJP’s high-handedness. Narendra Modi brazenly pushed ahead with the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), despite the vociferous and legitimate opposition from its Assam ally. The anger among the Assamese people was real, and AGP, whose politics is built on fighting for the indigenous Assamese, was rightfully embarrassed. In January 2019, the AGP walked out of the alliance. It, however, came back to the BJP meekly, barely two months later, just in time for the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
The Shiv Sena broke up with the BJP after last year’s Maharashtra assembly election over the issue of the chief minister-ship. Sena, an ally of 25 years, chose to forge a team with the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and to come to power. To be sure, the Shiv Sena was perhaps being irrational and excessive in its demands, given the BJP was the bigger partner. But this is what the art of coalition politics is all about — to know how to pacify an unhappy ally, to give an inch more than you might want to and to ensure the partnership remains intact.
The SAD’s decision to break ranks with the BJP shows this ally trouble isn’t merely an aberration, but a pattern. After all, the Left had also ended its affair with the Congress in the UPA I government. The problem with the BJP under Modi and Shah, however, is that this is more of a norm.
Why allies should matter to the BJP
The BJP’s hubris always makes one believe that they don’t need others. And Narendra Modi is, by far, the most powerful, influential and electorally successful politician India has seen, given how the political landscape, today, is far more competitive with many more players than the Nehru-Indira times of 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
The trouble with this thinking, however, is that it does not take into account the possibility of a future when you might be far weaker, and in a less jubilant phase. Would the JD (U) or AGP have come back to the BJP if the party had not been in such a position of strength? That remains highly debatable. The AGP, for instance, might be only a marginal player in Assam today. But never say no in politics. If the BJP begins to decline in Assam at some point, the Congress and AGP together will continue to become a serious threat.
Modi and Shah are way too clever to not understand the loss of an ally going away, especially when they don’t quite know if it will ever return to their fold. It is their arrogance and conviction that whatever they do is right, along with the absence of Vajpayee’s statesmanship that gets the better of them.
The headiness of being at the peak makes you believe it is there to last. The downward slope that follows the peak, however, is always the toughest because that is when you need someone to hold your hand to stop you from slipping. Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, as popular, electorally brilliant and powerful as they might be, will not always win 303 seats. It is then that the Akalis, Shiv Sainiks and AGPs of the political world will seem important. And let’s not forget, being the hardcore majoritarian party that it is, the pool of allies available to the BJP is anyway limited.
As the famous cliche goes — be nice to people on your way up because you will meet them on your way down. For Modi-Shah, it is important to be nice to their own allies when they are on top, because they are bound to need them when the inevitable fall begins.
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