The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

India’s Ruling National Democratic Alliance Is No Longer Quite ‘National’

India’s ruling party, the BJP, has hardly any alliances worth the name left – but it may manage without it.

Krzysztof Iwanek
India’s Ruling National Democratic Alliance Is No Longer Quite ‘National’
Credit: Flickr / narendramodiofficial

India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) never had a more comfortable majority than what it enjoys now. There are at least two paradoxes to its dominance, however. First, as described last month in The Diplomat, there is a disparity between how many states within the Indian federation the BJP is ruling and how dominant it is on the central level. As of now, the former aspect does not affect the latter. Second, the alliance built around the party – the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) – has shrunk recently. Even this will not be enough to shake the foundation of Narendra Modi’s hegemony, however.

In 2018, the NDA was abandoned by the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), a leading political power in the state of Andhra Pradesh. In 2019, the BJP received a goodbye note from its ideologically closest ally – the Shiv Sena of Maharashtra. In September this year, Modi’s party lost another traditional ally – the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) from Punjab. Moreover, in Bihar the alliance has recently been abandoned by a smaller regional partner, Lok Janshakti Party (LJP).

On paper, the alliance still looks formidable, as it includes 24 parties. Most of these, however, are small boats, barely visible in the shade of a few frigates and the enormous flagship (the BJP). When we look at how many representatives these parties have in the lower house of the central Indian Parliament (Lok Sabha), it turns out that as of this moment there is only one alliance member that matters apart from the BJP: it is the Janata Dal (United) or JD(U) with its 15 lawmakers. Most of the others have one member of parliament or none. The BJP, by comparison, has 302 representatives; it would retain a majority even in an unlikely event of being abandoned by all of its allies.

The situation is more complex and less predictable in the upper house, the Rajya Sabha, where two of the BJP’s allies have a significant presence – All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) with nine representatives and the already mentioned JD(U) with five. As the BJP does not have a majority by itself in the Rajya Sabha, it is dependent on its allies and temporary outside support of other parties. The upper house, however, matters less in the legislative process. Moreover, as pointed out by Kaushik Deka for India Today, since one-third of the Rajya Sabha’s members are nominated every two years (rather than all at once), the BJP’s position there appears to be secure at least until 2022.

The BJP may be concerned by the flight of its allies, but the situation is nowhere close to a crisis. First, most of the NDA parties were always a shoal of small fish. The fluctuations of their appearances and disappearances from the alliance never changed much. It was only the BJP and its few larger partners that really mattered.

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Second, the recent walkout of the four above-mentioned significant allies, while worrying, does not represent a coherent and broader trend: each happened due to different circumstances. In Andhra Pradesh, the TDP left the alliance because its demand that the central government grant a special status to the state was not fulfilled. In Punjab, the SAD stated it departed the alliance because it did not accept the farmers-related laws introduced by the central BJP government. In Bihar, the LJP’s leaving of the alliance may prove to be a temporary scuffle related to pre-elections tussles between local partners. Thus, while as of writing the LJP has declared itself to be outside of the NDA, it may very well remain in it.

The case of Maharashtra is very interesting. The BJP lost a crucial ally there due to its electoral successes, not its failures. After the 2019 elections, the BJP emerged as the biggest party in the state but not large enough to attain majority by itself – and at this point its partner, Shiv Sena, abandoned it and formed government with two rival parties. With hindsight, this was probably the turning point in a longer process in which Shiv Sena was feeling gradually overshadowed by the BJP in its own state.

Third, while the BJP is the party of the Hindu right, the whole of the alliance was never ideologically coherent. Most of the allies were a part of it in hope of winning more power at the regional level. The most significant objective of such partners was to defeat other local rivals, and these regional divides were usually not organized along broader political lines (such as left vs right). In the past, the Hindu nationalist-led NDA even included a little entity called the Revolutionary Socialist Party of Kerala (Bolshevik). The only party to ever outspokenly share the same ideology (Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva) with the BJP was the Shiv Sena. From this perspective, its withdrawal from the alliance may have been surprising but it also made sense, as the two parties fought for overlapping electorates by waving the flags of similar political ideas. Shared ideology was thus never a prerequisite for NDA membership. Hence, just like the recent walkout of allies was due to their particular circumstances, so may be their return – such comeback cannot be ruled out in each of the cases.

Losing allies must nevertheless be concerning for the BJP in some states. In Andhra Pradesh, the party never had any political representation worth the name, and thus the TDP’s parting of ways with it means that the NDA virtually does not exist in this state. In Punjab, the BJP was a junior partner to its local ally, the SAD. If the SAD and the BJP do not mend ways by the time of the next election in the state, Modi’s party will face being marginalized there. The case of Maharashtra may as well be opposite, however – as mentioned above, the BJP’s popularity in the state kept growing in the last years. As for other regions, in case other partners leave the alliance, the BJP will lose a place in the government in five states, but only one of them, Bihar, is large and populous. Such losses in four other states (Nagaland, Sikkim, Meghalaya, and Mizoram) would be of little national consequence. 

Thus, contrary to its name, the National Democratic Alliance as a whole matters much less on the national level. It is on the state level – and only in some states – that the BJP needs allies. The party is thus in a paradoxical situation: Its power on the national level is without parallel and unchallenged, but on the state level for the past three years it has kept losing regional elections and allies. Only time will tell if this trend will prove to be lasting. As long as there is no broader national alliance that could defeat the BJP, and as long as the electorate does not see any viable alternatives, the party can afford it. The amount of power the BJP draws from its rule at the center will remain the main pillar of its dominance.