Lal Krishna Advani’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) founded the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) with 25-plus partners in 1998. That launched India’s most successful era of coalition politics. Since then, three coalitions, without a core party with a majority, lasted full terms.
By the fall of 2020 now, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s BJP has finished the NDA and written new rules and equations in national politics. Advani’s NDA is over, used and discarded.
You might wish to compare this with the Ashwamedha Yagna of our Vedic tradition. Once your sovereignty is established with the display of an unstoppable horse across the nation, what do you do? Sacrifice that blessed horse. The NDA was that sacrificial horse. And we say it with no sense of judgement.
It is still called an NDA government but, at this point, its 53-member strong Union council of ministers has only one coalition partner. Don’t be embarrassed if you can’t recall who it is. I am also saving you the trouble of googling. It is Ramdas Athawale, of the Republican Party of India (RPI) faction named after himself, of course. He’s the solitary reminder of this being an NDA coalition government, a little bit like the Muslim driver of Advani’s ‘rath’ proving his secular commitment during his 1990 yatra.
Athawale reminds us of his presence every once in a while by saying something guaranteed to go viral. In the ministry, however, he is put in the place he belongs. His party has a small Dalit vote base in Maharashtra. So he is a Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment. It’s an aside, but the sole Muslim in this cabinet also holds the portfolio of Minority Affairs.
Can you hold this against the Modi-Shah BJP? The answer may lie in something that former Haryana chief minister (jailed for corruption, now on parole) Om Prakash Chautala famously said to me: “Hum yahan teerth yatra par nahin aaye. Rajneeti satta ke liye hoti hai (We haven’t come on a pilgrimage here. You do politics for power).” The new BJP passes that test, never mind the many crushed toes, broken limbs, decapitated allies and shattered egos.
Let’s jump from 1998 to 2014. The BJP won a majority. But seven allies were still part of the government: Shiv Sena, Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) had cabinet portfolios. Anupriya Patel’s Apna Dal, Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Loktantrik Samajwadi Party (RLSP), and RPI (Athawale) had an MoS each, besides TDP.
If only Athawale survives six years later, in a government still definitionally of NDA, it tells us how radically our national politics has changed. In its sway over national politics now, the Modi-Shah BJP is what the Congress was under Indira Gandhi. Why would they indulge coalition partners, their greed and egos now? They haven’t joined politics as a ‘teerth yatra’ either.
This is not an argument about the past. It is, on the contrary, a likely political driving map for the future. But, we need to refer to the past yet again. Not all of the parties Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee drew into their first NDA even survive now, the names of some may look like spelling errors today and even the UPSC topper will struggle to crack all their acronyms. But a bunch of names are far from forgettable.
The original NDA cabinets included George Fernandes as defence minister, the last such from a coalition partner to be in the hallowed Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). His comrade and sometimes frenemy Nitish Kumar held Railways and Agriculture ministries at different points in time. Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik, Sharad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan were there too, with key portfolios. As was Suresh Prabhu, then in Shiv Sena. There was Naidu’s TDP with the Lok Sabha speaker (G.M.C. Balayogi), and the Abdullahs of the National Conference. It was an authentic umbrella coalition.
Now, Nitish is an NDA partner, he has nobody in the Union cabinet, and is diminishing by the day in Bihar. Even in the likely event of another term as chief minister of Bihar, it will be his last. With no successor in his family or party, the BJP will wait until he fully fades and then move in.
The BJP is now fighting a take-no-prisoners battle with former ally Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. Whether she wins or loses, she will emerge weaker, with the BJP as the pre-eminent national party of the state. Naveen Patnaik is being left alone in Odisha, save some pin pricks because the BJP also knows he is ageing and the space he empties will be theirs. Expect them to move in for the kill well in time before the elections in 2024.
The playbook is familiar. A couple of dissidents will emerge making allegations, the CBI, ED and the rest will move in, favoured channels and social media will launch a war, and the odds will be impossible for any solitary chief minister, least of all one at Patnaik’s age in 2024. The Abdullahs spent almost a year in detention. As did Mehbooba Mufti, even though she became a BJP ally in the Modi-Shah era.
The Shiv Sena is now a bitter rival and Suresh Prabhu is in the BJP. Sharad Yadav is in the middle of nowhere and his daughter Subhashini just joined the Congress. Paswan dynasty’s an ongoing, familiar story and the upcoming Bihar election can mark the end of his party. Chandrababu Naidu is now a rival, and the man who vanquished him in Andhra Pradesh, Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, is at the mercy of the CBI and the ED. He’s fighting a desperate battle with the judiciary and the Modi government will always have leverage over him. Further south, the BJP is happy dealing with a weakened AIADMK and biding its time.
Politics is the cruellest form of warfare. We have a situation, therefore, where Patnaik, Reddy, Nitish, all know the inevitability of the BJP prying in their limited enclaves and edging them out in the course of time. They might still be fighting it in the elections.
Yet, they have no choice but to swallow their pride and have their MPs, especially in Rajya Sabha, vote with the BJP on the most important issues. You may be the emperor in your state. But the real power, the ‘agencies’, the national media, the moneybags, are all with the Centre that no longer needs you.
You can judge Modi-Shah for being what they are, the most ‘political’ government in India’s history, but they aren’t apologetic about it. You have to give it to them for their 24x7x365 obsession with politics and power of the kind never seen in India. Even their economic decisions, each one of them, is guided by politics.
That’s why interest rates will not be cut further, the Centre will not give a fiscal stimulus because that might increase inflation for the poor. Whatever fiscal sacrifice the government makes, will essentially go towards ensuring the extremely poor don’t go hungry. That compromise, between inflation, welfare and growth, is pure, de-risked politics. Similarly, it does not hesitate to keep taxes at the highest level ever on petroleum products. Because only the middle and the lower-middle classes drive automobiles. Their votes are in its vaults anyway.
That is the state of play in national politics going ahead. You like it, good for you. If you don’t, you will have to challenge this nearly accomplished Ashwamedha with more than just tweets that go viral. Advani is around. Please ask him. He won’t be disappointed. In 1998, he launched the campaign to transform Indian politics. Within his lifetime, his pupils have redeemed his pledge. If not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. Sorry, Nehru fans, for stealing this from him.