In the 1980s and 1990s the Hindu right-wing party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was in the political wilderness. Its exclusive rightist agenda combined with the leadership of Lal Krishna Advani made members of the party personae non grata in Indian politics.
The party gained acceptability only when it named Atal Behari Vajpayee – more moderate than Advani – as its leader and diluted its core Hindutva agenda. By the end of the 1990s the BJP formed a government in New Delhi with the support of its alliance partners in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
However, just when the Opposition alliance is revving up for next year’s general elections, the exit of key ally Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), from the NDA on Sunday has further isolated the BJP. The JD(U) cited the BJP’s appointment of Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, as head of its election committee as the main reason for the break in its 17-year history with the BJP.
The BJP in its Goa conclave earlier this month appointed Modi as chairman of its election committee, thereby making him a de facto prime ministerial candidate. The appointment incited revolt within the rightist group and drew sharp reactions from the JD(U) and prospective allies like Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and Telugu Desam Party (TDP) who once belonged to the NDA.
"We are not responsible. We were forced to take this decision. We cannot compromise on our basic principles," said JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar, chief minister of Bihar, in a press conference on Sunday following the split.
Dr. Shashi Shekhar Singh, a political scientist from Delhi University, told The Diplomat, “Modi carries the image of a divisive leader and Hindutva politician. He is widely believed to have turned a blind eye when Muslims in Gujarat were being targeted by fanatic Hindus in 2002 in the violence that claimed many lives of the minority community.”
He continued, “No political party that needs the support of the Muslim community can be seen associating itself with Modi. Breaking up the alliance is a logical conclusion of a consistent stand taken by Nitish Kumar vis-a-vis Narendra Modi.” Since the exit of the JD(U), the BJP is left with only two allies, Akali Dal of Punjab and Shiv Sena of Maharashtra. This leaves the main Opposition party with no secular allies.
“It’s a big setback for the NDA. Both the BJP and JD(U) have taken a calculated risk,” Vinod Sharma, a senior journalist from the Hindustan Times, told The Diplomat. “The BJP’s projection of Modi has isolated the party again at the national level, which is not a good sign for the opposition alliance. It might impact their search for power in the 2014 elections.”
An editorial in The Hindu reads: “Mr. Modi became a metaphor for divisive, sectarian politics in a state ruled by the JD(U) and the BJP. There was no way Mr. Kumar could have continued this balancing act with Mr. Modi in a pivotal position in the NDA. The fracturing of the NDA immediately on his promotion returns the BJP to that point in history when it was proud of its ‘splendid isolation’.”
For the Congress party, battling an image crisis after a series of corruption scandals, many see the chaos in the NDA’s ranks as a boon. But Delhi University’s Singh disagrees. “The Congress will not benefit, as its credibility is down among voters,” he said. “The real beneficiaries will be the regional parties that will flourish at the cost of these two national parties and hold the key to New Delhi after 2014 elections.”
Polity in India is highly fractured, with no individual party in a position to get 272 seats of 545 on its own. The BJP got 116 seats in the 2009 elections and will need a huge jump in its tally to claim the Delhi throne next year. Considering that even at the height of its popularity the BJP could only get 182 seats, analysts believe the rightist party has pushed itself into a corner by projecting Modi as its de facto prime ministerial candidate.
Sharma says that the “focus has shifted from misdeeds of the ruling party to the personality of Modi, which might prove disastrous for the BJP electorally. The BJP should learn from its own history that only a moderate face with wider acceptability can make it a national alternative to the Congress.”