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BJP for regional parties? Narendra Modi’s sudden change of heart for Mayawati, Mamata, Akhilesh is mere tactics

Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to be trying to calibrate his and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) objective of creating an India governed solely by his party; free from the interference posed by the Opposition. Modi and his party started with the idea of a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’, but widened the ambit of the idea to include the Opposition as a whole.

In Andhra Pradesh, Modi warmed to the original theme at an election rally on Tuesday. West Bengal is fine with Mamata Banerjee and the Left, he said. Uttar Pradesh has no problems with Mayawati or Akhilesh Yadav, he continued, but the Congress will have to be banished from the country forever. As in many of Modi’s pronouncements, there was the tenor of the imperial edict in this one as well. It is likely to get short shrift.

The question, of course, is who gave Narendra Modi the authority to hand out passes to political parties or speak on behalf of the Indian citizenry and, by extension, electorate. The simple answer is: Certainly not the entire nation.

In the merry-go-round that is electoral politics, the BJP led by Modi was given the mandate to govern India for five years. It was a strong mandate, with the BJP winning an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha after a gap of 30 years, but that hardly means that the whole ‘country’ gave Modi the right to speak on its behalf.

Take West Bengal: The BJP got just under 17 percent of the vote and two Lok Sabha seats out of 42 — hardly the kind of ringing endorsement that Modi might imagine he has.

Whether the people of West Bengal are all right with Mamata or not, they are capable of sorting out themselves. Even in Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP won an astonishing 71 seats of 80 (almost 90 percent), it polled only 42.30 percent of the votes; across the country it won 282 seats, but just over 30 percent of the votes. That’s how the first-past-the-post system works, so no one can complain. But vox populi? Well…

Those were Modi’s glory days, and the BJP’s. The saffron standard is hardly flying at full mast anymore and is distinctly ragged at the edges. Modi’s stratospheric popularity or approval rating has taken a hit. In January 2017, it was 65 percent, according to ‘Mood of the Nation Survey’ by India Today, but in July 2018, it had fallen to 49 percent.

So, it is highly unlikely that Opposition parties are hanging around 7 Lok Kalyan Marg waiting for approval to remain in the business of politics. Before exploring this theme further, a short digression will be in order.

The BJP and Modi’s ideological and political mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has distanced itself from the Congress-free India slogan. In April, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had categorically rejected the slogan jointly propagated by Modi and BJP president Amit Shah, opining that it was ‘improper’ to use such language. ‘Nation-building cannot be the work of one man. It has to be inclusive, requiring the contributions of both the ruling and the Opposition parties,’ he had said. The dig seems to have been unmistakable.

It is in this context that we have to see Modi’s re-calibration exercise. Modi may have realised that electoral popularity cannot be taken for granted. In any case, most people will realise that the electoral fortunes shift, as they must. If such realisation tempers Modi’s style of functioning, it would be a marginally good thing.

It must be said, however, that Modi’s sudden change of heart is probably not so much a Damascene conversion as a tactical shift. Political observers have pointed out that by giving out certificates to regional parties (excluding the Telangana Rashtriya Samithi whose chief K Chandrashekhar Rao was also targetted in his speech) while continuing to express the objective of annihilating the Congress, Modi was trying to drive a wedge in the Opposition and exorcise the ‘spectre’ that the BJP fears most — Opposition unity. BJP insiders have been quoted in media reports as having said that Modi’s message to regional leaders is not to join hands with the Congress.

If this is indeed true, it is utterly infantile. Modi and his government have relentlessly used State institutions to harass regional leaders. Among his big-ticket targets have been Mamata and Mayawati. To now try to persuade them against aligning with anyone is somewhat unreal.

Mamata, Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav and others may have legitimate grievances against the Congress, but they are surely not going to look to the BJP for tutorials in political management or survival. In any case, some of the key battles in the states will be either fought solo or through alliances in which the Congress’ contribution is minimal. Thus, Uttar Pradesh is where an alliance between Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party and Akhilesh’s Samajwadi Party will be enough to seriously dent the BJP’s prospects. Thus, also, West Bengal is where Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress will take on, and in all likelihood annihilate, the BJP under its own steam.

Given the current situation, it would not be wholly unrealistic to read Modi’s speech as an exercise in desperation.

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