Why the rise of regional parties is proving to be a thorn in BJP's side

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP President Amit Shah along with Gujarat CM Vijay Rupani | PTI Photo
On July 27, 2017, Nitish Kumar formed a coalition government in Bihar with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Kumar’s departure from the opposition ranks, and BJP’s emphatic win in the Uttar Pradesh assembly polls in March 2017 convinced most that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on course to lead BJP to another majority government in 2019.

A little over a fortnight later, on August 15, 2017, the PM in his Independence-Day speech, spoke about his resolve to build a ‘New India’ by 2022.

It seemed he had taken for granted that he would indeed be leading his party to yet another majority government in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, and was now trying to impress upon the electorate to see the writing on the wall.

It made sense, too. After all, the BJP had UP and Bihar in its fist. The two states together send 120 MPs to the Lok Sabha. In 2014, the BJP had won 93 of these seats on its own. Along with its allies, it had won 104 of the 120, and with Janata Dal (United) now an ally, it now has sway over 106 of these seats.

But politics can change quickly. The PM remains popular as a leader, but is not considered infallible. He is being questioned for his government’s ill-thought out decisions, particularly demonetisation and hurried and faulty implementation of goods and services tax (GST). But the BJP's unease has deeper roots.

The party has suffered a series of defeats in crucial Lok Sabha by-elections. The defeats in Rajasthan have been massive, and UP's Phulpur and Gorakhpur have signaled an alignment of castes that could wipe out BJP across the Hindi heartland and shatter its dream of reprising 2014.

If his Sunday’s ‘Mann ki Baat’ broadcast is any indication, the PM is nervous. He spoke at some length about B R Ambedkar and the need for farmers to get minimum support price. He also reiterated that he was an OBC.

Unfortunately for the BJP, it would struggle to recover ground on both these issues. It might promise better MSP, but as is being reported from the ground, the farmers are not being paid that MSP. Also, the debate has moved beyond the paying of MSP to the demands of sharecroppers and tenant farmers.

The BJP’s record on honouring Ambedkar is followed more in its breach. The PM might identify himself as a ‘pichhada’, or backward, but his Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) and BJP state governments are run by upper castes, particularly Brahmins and Thakurs.

In the CCS, apart from Modi, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, are all Brahmins, while Home Minister Rajnath Singh is a Thakur.

In the states, BJP ruled Rajasthan (Vasundhara Raje), Uttarakhand (Trivendra Singh Rawat), Uttar Pradesh (Yogi Adityanath), Himachal Pradesh (Jai Ram Thakur), Chhattisgarh (Raman Singh) and Madhya Pradesh (Shivraj Singh Chouhan) have chief ministers who are identified as Rajputs or Thakurs. 

Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis and Goa CM Manohar Parrikar are Brahmins, while Gujarat CM Vijay Rupani is a Baniya. Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah are also considered Baniyas.

The Modi government has been unable to deliver on its promise of generating 20 million jobs and reducing farm distress. But it has also failed miserably in giving greater stake to OBCs and Dalits, when the PM had himself repeatedly identified himself as an OBC in 2014, and the BJP won 2017 UP assembly on the back of reaching out to non-Yadav OBC and non-Jatav Dalit castes.

The Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party are not only getting together, but also making an effort to rebuild the coalition of all OBC and Dalit castes. SP chief Akhilesh Yadav and BSP's Mayawati have realised their mistakes of becoming Yadav and Jatav dominated parties, respectively. The two have shed their efforts at forging a Yadav-Muslim, or Jatav-Muslim, alliances and have now focussed totally on fighting 'Manuwadi' forces as represented by the BJP.

A similar effort is on in Bihar. BJP ally Jitan Ram Manjhi, a Mahadalit, has aligned with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), while former union minister Sukhdeo Paswan, a Dalit, has joined the RJD. BJP allies like Ram Vilas Paswan of Lok Janshakti Party and Upendra Kushwaha of Rashtriya Loktantrik Party could also jump ship.

In UP, the BJP last week indulged in horse trading to ensure the defeat of Bahujan Samaj Party candidate Bhimrao Ambedkar. Whatever its claims, the BJP has not promoted its Dalit leadership and the optics, including the Supreme Court order on the SC/ST Act, look decidedly anti-Dalit.

If BJP's prospects in UP, Bihar, Jharkhand and Rajasthan look bleak, it is unlikely that it can recover the loss of seats here with wins in West Bengal, Odisha and northeastern states.

For, beyond Karnataka the BJP has failed to make any inroads in southern India. While Karnataka assembly elections are crucial for the BJP, it would struggle to win any significant seats in other southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Even if orchestrated, the narrative against the BJP in Andhra Pradesh after the exit of the Telugu Desam Party is likely to ensure the party cannot hope to win any seats. Similarly, in Telangana, the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samiti is busy shifting its anti-incumbency on to the Centre.  

Maharashtra has not only witnessed a strident peasant movement, but also castes like Marathas and Dalits have better representation in the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party. Both these castes have come onto the streets in recent months. The anger among Patels and Dalits in Gujarat is also palpable.

Whatever the PM’s own popularity, the BJP government at the Centre needs to take drastic steps from now to 2019 Lok Sabha polls to hope to touch even the 150-seat mark, let alone winning a majority on its own. It needs to reach out to the youths, farmers, and key caste groups.

For now, it looks a difficult task.

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