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Why Chandrababu Naidu is a prize catch for Modi’s BJP

Chandrababu Naidu’s support for NDA may suggest a significant realignment of Indian polity.

If recent media reports are to be believed, former Andhra Pradesh (AP) Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu may return to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).  Launching a scathing attack on the Congress party, Naidu recently met BJP president Rajnath Singh. That Naidu has not explicitly ruled out an alliance with the BJP itself is good news for the party considering  its pariah status.  While Chandrababu Naidu’s popularity in AP is a matter of conjecture—especially with the division of the state and the rise of Jaganmohan Reddy— it may indicate a significant realignment of the political forces. For three reasons.

First, it may be hard to believe but only two decades back, the Left and the BJP had constructed a grand alliance under the leadership of V P Singh against the Rajiv Gandhi government. There was little ideological affinity between the two parties; they were motivated by only one factor: anti-Congressism. As the Congress was a colossus on the national stage, the opposition had little alternative but to come together despite its own ideological differences and disparate policies.  The only concern was throwing out the Congress government—the rest was a matter of detail.

A major shift in the Indian polity in the last two decades is the withering of anti-Congressism as the defining principle of alliance construction.  There are many reasons for that. The Gujarat riots of 2002 and NDA’s loss in 2004 helped push the ‘secular parties’ away from the BJP.  Paradoxically, the relative weakening of the Congress party compared to its overwhelming influence till the 1980s has allowed it to attract regional allies. It is no longer the behemoth which would crush all other parties and refused to compromise confident of its prima donna status. Under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, the Congress has also offered an alternative organizing principle: anti-communalism. By portraying BJP as ‘unacceptable’, Congress has made itself an attractive option even for Lohiate socialists like Mulyam Singh Yadav and Nitish Kumar. The replacement of anti-Congressism with anti-communalism explains much of the party’s success in the last decade and is a significant achievement of Mrs. Gandhi and her leadership. That BJP is considered more ‘unacceptable’ in 2013 compared to 1998 in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition and the subsequent religious polarization is indicative of how successful Mrs. Gandhi’s strategy has been.

Chandrababu Naidu overtures to the BJP marks the first major shift in that narrative in the last decade. Since its defeat in 2004, the BJP has been steadily bleeding allies to the extent that it is only left with Shiv Sena and Akali Dal as NDA partners.  Chandrababu Naidu’s scathing attack on the Congress party and his labeling of it as the primary ‘enemy’ offers the BJP an opportunity to resurrect the concept of   ‘anti-Congressism.’ If the BJP can make 2014 about the failings of the UPA government rather than the communal/secular debate, it would be in a much stronger position to not only win additional seats but attract allies. Indeed, it was interesting that Naidu never actually endorsed Modi—rather his argument was that the Congress party has derailed India’s growth story and hence needs to be removed.  Replace economics with secularism and this is precisely the reasoning the likes of Maywati and Mulayam Singh Yadav have offered for their continued support of the UPA government.

Second, BJP is not a major force in Andhra Pradesh politics. It may have its pockets of influence and the unstinted support for Telangana may yield some minor benefits, but it is unlikely to win a seat on its own. On the other hand, it is clear that any party considering an alliance with BJP should expect a significant Muslim backlash. If Naidu is willing to ally with the BJP despite these handicaps, it suggests that at least in his mind Modi is likely to attract an incremental vote in AP. In short, Naidu is betting on Modi being a Vajpayee. One of the most interesting questions of 2014 general elections is this: Does Narendra Modi have the coattails to deliver additional support to the BJP in areas outside of its core influence? Naidu’s move towards the NDA suggests that at least in the case of AP, Modi may be a stronger factor compared to his party. Will it force other regional parties to consider BJP as a potential ally?

Third, if the BJP wins 200 seats in the 2014 general elections, Narendra Modi is likely to be the next prime minister of India. However, recent opinion polls and the party’s own geographical limitations suggest that 150-160 may be a more realistic figure. It is this battle for the additional 30-40 seats which is likelyto decide who forms the next government in Delhi. One significant disadvantage BJP has that the threshold at which it can stitch together a stable coalition is much higher than the Congress party. It is exactly here an endorsement from Naidu may be truly significant: by reducing BJP’s unacceptability, he lowers the  threshold   at which Modi can ensure an expanded NDA and fulfill his prime ministerial ambitions.  It also helps address one of the strongest arguments against Narendra Modi: that not only would he scare off allies—Nitish Kumar is a prime example— but would make it exceedingly hard for the BJP to attract regional parties like the BJD or Trinamool Congress. If Chandrababu Naidu joins the NDA, it would be a significant feather in Modi’s cap. For instance, it is noticeable that despite his alleged wider acceptability, L. K Advani in 2009 failed to expand the NDA. In fact, he presided over the departure of one of its oldest allies which cost BJP the state of Orissa.

It is certainly not guaranteed that Chandrababu Naidu would ultimately join the NDA or enter into a pre-poll alliance. He would probably wait for the results of the assembly elections scheduled in November 2013 and gauge BJP’s popular support before he decides one way or the other.  And even if Naidu joins the NDA, it is unlikely that Jayalalitha—perhaps  BJP’s most natural ally–would endorse Narendra Modi.  And would a TDP-BJP alliance actually deliver seats in AP?

However, by providing ‘secular’ cover to Modi’s BJP, Naidu may yet prove to be the most important partner for the BJP and increase its acceptability among other regional players.  The logic of politics is simple: allies beget allies. As many commentators have discovered over the years, it is almost always a fraught exercise to speculate over the future direction of Indian politics. Nevertheless, the significance of this moment for the BJP and the broader national polity should be clearly understood.

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