In the 25 years of its existence, the National Democratic Alliance or NDA has been an enduring front of coalition politics – beginning in the late 90s. But the two-and-half decade journey has meant that strands of continuity and change are now more distinctly visible.
One major change has been the dominant role of NDA’s key party – the Bharatiya Janta Party – at the core of its electoral strength. A measure of how heavily the current NDA, with 38 constituent parties, relies on the BJP for its strength can be seen in some stark numbers. Out of the alliance’s current tally of 329 Lok Sabha seats, the BJP alone accounts for 301 seats. That means the remaining 37 parties have added only 28 seats to that aggregate.
Within these non-BJP seats too, the configuration is concentrated. This is evident in the fact that 16 of the NDA allies didn’t contest even one seat in the 2019 general elections, whereas nine couldn’t win any seat and seven others won one seat each. Second to the BJP, the breakaway Shiv Sena (Enknath Shinde faction) has a share of six seats and the Lok Janshakti Party (its two factions led by Pashupati Paras and Chirag Paswan) has six seats, and then, the Apna Dal has two seats.
In many ways, this top-heavy structure of the current NDA has meant that in the last few years it hasn’t shown any urgency to co-ordinate and keep up the intra-alliance dialogue. This is in sharp contrast to its formative years, when it was always on its toes, even when the BJP-led NDA governments were at the centre for two terms – a truncated one and the other which ran its full-term.
As that was an era of thin margins of electoral majority, limited elbow room and wider dispersal of seats, it made tactical sense for the BJP to navigate the ties with the allies, with mechanisms like the convener’s role. Even if it was the leading party of the alliance, the BJP couldn’t afford to lose sight of the vagaries of coalition allies. That was particularly crucial in wake of the rival alliance – earlier the United Front, and later the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance – always looking for little cracks to lure shifts in loyalties.
That, however, doesn’t mean that in its dominant phase of power at the centre, the BJP can afford to undervalue the need for keeping NDA intact, and even expand it. The complexity of electoral politics in the country and regional variants of power equations are enough to make the BJP wary of taking its current dominance for granted. The party can see the challenges it faces in the 2024 polls. Electorally-peaking in Hindi heartland states in 2019, the party is faced with possibilities of an undercurrent of anti-incumbency and failures in adding new territories of support beyond its strongholds.
Moreover, the of the Congress-led national opposition alliance of 26 parties, INDIA, has also added to the need of recalibrating the NDA as the rival BJP-led national alliance. No wonder that the day the opposition parties meet concluded with the announcement of forming INDIA, the BJP held a meeting of the leaders of 38 alliance parties to mark the 25 years of the NDA.
In the last few years, the perception of a drift in the NDA was largely attributed to the BJP’s comfortable position of having a majority of its own at the centre. Such claims were bolstered by how long-time allies like the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Thackeray faction) and Shiromani Akali Dal walked away from the alliance, though with different implications. While these exits were dictated by specific political factors, the party did try to win back a section of these parties into the NDA fold – enabling the Eknath Shinde faction to breakaway, claim the Shiv Sena party symbol and form the government in Maharashtra. The repair work with the SAD in Punjab, where the BJP isn’t a strong force, has resulted in securing the support of a breakaway faction of the party, Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa-led SAD (Sanyukt), for the NDA.
Even as the BJP has been coming to terms with the need to mend ties with its old allies, the last few weeks have seen the NDA adding smaller parties to its fold, including Jitan Ram Manjhi’s HAM(S) in Bihar and Om Prakash Rajbhar’s SBSP in Uttar Pradesh. These form a recalibration process seeking to harness patches of local support, and support of specific groups or even area-intensive heft, if not regional — for the cumulative effect on national politics. In its push for repairing and reinvigorating the NDA, the BJP is seeking to plug holes that it can identify in its electoral strategy for winning the third consecutive stint in power at the centre.
The presence of an anchor party of the NDA, in the form of the BJP, and an accepted leader by allies, prime minister Narendra Modi, gives a degree of stability to the alliance. It’s a point that the NDA leaders would like to leverage, particularly while attacking the recently formed INDIA. Even if it is the significant force of the new alliance, Congress hasn’t been electorally successful enough to assert a pivotal role in decision-making. Moreover, the new alliance’s compulsions in avoiding the question of an accepted leader puts it in stark contrast to its rival formation. The new alliance, however, can use such limitations to its advantage also, if the turfs of the allies don’t overreach. At the same time, favourable results will bring the risk of a post-poll power tussle within the alliance.
While hitting a quarter-century of its existence, the BJP-led NDA is seeking to reinvent itself – both as an exercise in repairing and consolidating. In doing so, it has been alert to the challenges of enlisting regional support structures in the 2024 polls. As a survivor of the alliance politics of the coalition era at the centre, the NDA is again central to the BJP’s plans for the 2024 polls. In many ways, the recent attempts at recalibrating the NDA shows how the upcoming Lok Sabha polls are set to revive the old script of the battle of rival alliances for power at the centre.