That relations between the BJP and the Shiv Sena are close to breaking point have become clear from the decision of the latter party to contest the Maharashtra bypolls alone. Although the BJP won in Palghar, the performance of the Shiv Sena was unexpectedly good. Clearly, many voters unhappy with the BJP decided to vote for the Sena, rather than the Congress, thereby boosting its tally, but not by enough to ensure victory. While being justified in celebrating the victory of his party over a candidate backed by his coalition partner, it is time that Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis introspected on the reason why the Sena is so unhappy with his government, despite it being a part of the ministry, as indeed is the case in Delhi as well. Those familiar with the state and its politics warn that the CM has ears only for the “High Command” of the BJP, which comprises BJP president Amit Shah, who in turn reports to what may be termed the “Supreme Command”, which is the Prime Minister. In a coalition, the smaller party has a right to know decisions other than by watching them unfold on television screens. It has the right to demand that it be consulted before important decisions get taken, especially those having a direct impact on the portfolios held by the supporting party. In 1998, thanks to the centralising approach of Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, Brajesh Mishra, the AIADMK ministers found that even routine requests such as appointments to the institutions under the minister in question used to be held up by the PMO. AIADMK supremo and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram was used to getting her own way, and being stymied in this because of the PMO and on occasion other ministries controlled by BJP ministers, led finally to her walking out of the NDA, resulting in the fall of the Vajpayee government. Indeed, such a pullout would have taken place much earlier on 14 August 1998, but for the intervention of a private individual whose views the CM respected, and who told her not to ensure the taking over of the Prime Ministership of a foreign-born citizen in the 50th year of the freedom of the country, an argument that won Jayalalithaa over. This individual had been requested to intervene on Vajpayee’s behalf by the late scholar M.L. Sondhi and the present Minister of State in the Modi government, Vijay Goel. But the respite was not for long, for the obstructive tactics of the policymakers in Delhi determined to “teach Jayalalithaa a lesson” continued, leading to the tea party at the Ashoka Hotel in Delhi that saw Jayalalithaa and Sonia Gandhi form an alliance that would very soon make the government lose its majority, only to regain it during the 1999 polls as a consequence of Kargil and the boost its outcome gave to the BJP’s fortunes. Had there been smoother coordination between the AIADMK and the BJP, the Vajpayee government may have continued uninterrupted until 2003, and thereafter returned to a second term.
The experience of the BJP during 1998 holds a lesson for CM Fadnavis. Chosen as he has been by PM Modi, it is important for Fadnavis to ensure that such a trust is merited by the smooth functioning of his government. For this, bridges need to be rebuilt with the Sena, so that by the time the Lok Sabha elections come by, the two parties focus on defeating the Opposition rather than each other. Similar is the case in Bihar, where CM Nitish Kumar is known to have developed reservations about the extent of commitment of the BJP to his causes and to his government. Should the JDU and the BJP part ways, it is certain that the performance of both in the Lok Sabha polls will be less than stellar. In this case, more than the state BJP leadership under the soft-spoken Sushil Modi, it is BJP president Amit Shah who will need to reach out to Nitish Kumar. It is during bad times that good friends are needed and appreciated, and the two bypoll defeats suffered by the JDU should ensure not an increase in the distance between the two parties but a bridging of the gap separating them. Conciliation is needed in the interests of both parties. The BJP speaks often about the dissonances within the Opposition alliance, but needs to pay attention to its own partners, including in Bihar, UP and Punjab. It is likely that the 2019 elections will not be a repeat of 2014, in that the BJP may lose its majority in the Lok Sabha. It will then turn on which party, BJP or the Congress, is able to stitch together a coalition sufficient to enable the crossing of the halfway mark. Prospective partners will be watching carefully as to how sensitively and empathetically the BJP is handling its present coalition partners so as to avoid a repeat of Andhra Pradesh, where CM Chandrababu Naidu has walked away, partly because of reports that Jagan Reddy may emerge as the preferred partner of the BJP in 2019. Closer coordination, indeed frequent consultation, would have prevented such a walkout by the TDP, which was and remains a force to be reckoned with in Andhra Pradesh and even in parts of Telengana. The bypolls have shown that a BJP’s repeat of a Lok Sabha majority on its own is far from certain. The BJP needs to introspect and put its own alliance in order.