Maharashtra 2014: BJP taking post-poll support from ex-ally of Congress

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continues to show signs of seeking to break out of the post-1998 pattern of two large pre-electoral coalitions that have taken turns governing India. While the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) remains the governing formula at the federal level despite BJP having a majority of seats, the BJP played serious hardball in the recent campaign for the Maharastra state assembly. In elections on 15 October, the BJP won 119 of the 288 seats (41.3%). It appears that it will take “outside support”–i.e. post-electoral cooperation but no governing coalition–from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). While the Times of India on 19 October referred to this offer of support as “unexpected“, it was pretty clearly foreshadowed by the frenetic reshaping and ultimately breaking of alliances in the week leading up to the deadline to declare candidacies.

The significance of these developments is that the BJP has an alliance at the federal level with a Maharastra-specific party, the Shiv Sena. In the Lok Sabha election earlier this year, these parties continued their pre-election alliance, in which the parties agree not to compete against each other in districts and to support one another’ candidates. It appeared as if the alliance was critical to the strong BJP performance in the state in those elections. Further, Shiv Sena sits in the federal cabinet of BJP PM Narendra Modi. Meanwhile, the NCP is (or was) an alliance partner of the Indian National Congress Party (INC), in both the 2004-2014 federal government and in the state of Maharashtra until the run-up to these elections. The INC and NCP ruled the state in alliance for 15 years.

In late September, there was a flurry of media reports of a “seat-sharing row” between the BJP and the Shiv Sena, with the former demanding the right to contest districts currently held by the latter. The BJP was explicit in saying that there had been a “Modi wave” and that it was thereby entitled to a larger share of the districts. Meanwhile, the NCP played hardball with its ally, Congress (INC), demanding additional seats and an alternation in the Chief Minister’s post.

On 25 September, days before the candidate-filing deadline, the BJP announced it was dumping its ally, Shiv Sena. Barely an hour later, the NCP broke its alliance with the INC.

Given the concurrence of the demands from the national partner (BJP) against its ally and against the BJP’s national rival by a state partner (NCP), and the quick succession of the two announcements, it is hard to believe it was not being coordinated. It was seemingly foreshadowing the formation of a BJP-NCP post-poll alliance if the BJP won the most seats, but not a majority. And, of course, that is precisely what happened.

It was all quite dramatic, and it appears to be part of a BJP strategy of supplanting its erstwhile allies in favor of single-party minority government (when a majority is not (yet) in reach). It is especially telling that it would prefer to take outside support from an erstwhile Congress ally instead of continue a relationship with its own former pre-poll partners. (The Shiv Sena, contesting alone, won 61 seats, according to preliminary results, while the NCP won 42 (and Congress 44); BJP is 27 seats short of a majority.)

In my first post-election entry on the Indian federal result, I said that I doubted the BJP majority meant a re-writing of the fundamental rules of Indian politics. Yet the pre-poll and post-poll politics in Maharashtra suggests the BJP is attempting just such a re-write. Several key state elections are coming up in the next year, and the NDA partners have been put on notice.