By terminating the Biju Janata Dal's 11-year-old alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party in Orissa, Naveen Patnaik has delivered a powerful rebuff to the BJP, and given a major impetus to the process of political realignment nationally. The significance of the BJD's decision to break off with the BJP goes far beyond Orissa's 21 Lok Sabha seats, of which the two parties currently hold 18. It's part of a larger trend towards the de-centring of politics. It's a game-changer which breathes life into the emerging non-Congress, non-BJP Third Front.
The BJP-BJD break-up is only partly explained by the trouble they had in negotiating seat-sharing for the coming Lok Sabha and assembly elections, in which Patnaik made demands which the BJP considered "humiliating".
The BJD felt confident about its demands because it routed the BJP in recent municipal elections.
The break-up cannot be attributed mainly to the failure of Vinay Katiyar, in-charge of the BJP's Orissa unit, to strike a rapport with Patnaik. The Hindi-speaking, rustic politician just couldn't communicate with the suave English-speaking Orissa chief minister, and had to be replaced. Ultimately, much of the responsibility for the BJP's failure lies with L K Advani, who was to have strategised and negotiated all alliances.
A major reason for the break-up was the anti-Christian violence unleashed in western Orissa's Kandhamal district by the Sangh Parivar, in which 38 people were killed and tens of thousands made homeless. Patnaik reportedly told his party: "I don't want to go down in history with the stigma of a dirty communal politician... Orissa has never been a communally biased state, nor has it witnessed the kind of violence the BJP has initiated in the past five years."
Apparently, Pyari Mohan Mohapatra, former Orissa chief secretary-turned-Patnaik's adviser, greatly influenced the decision.
Various Left leaders were also in touch with Patnaik after his relations with the BJP turned sour.
One can argue that the realisation of the BJP's communal, divisive nature dawned rather late on Patnaik, or even that it's expedient for him to cite that as the reason. But the fact remains that the BJP often becomes a liability for its allies because of its anti-minority politics -- as happened after the Gujarat pogrom, when the National Conference, Trinamool Congress and Lok Janashakti Party quit the National Democratic Alliance.
Orissa is a reminder of this.
The BJD's decision has dramatically put the spotlight back on the secularism-communalism issue. It has set back the BJP's electoral fortunes, and diminished Advani's authority and his chances of becoming prime minister. The BJP peevishly withdrew support to Patnaik's government, forcing a confidence vote. But Patnaik has expectedly won that vote.
The NDA has now shrunk even further, having recently lost the Trinamool Congress and Telugu Desam Party. It's now left with just six parties, in place of the 23 it once had: Janata Dal-United in Bihar (8 Lok Sabha seats currently), Shiv Sena in Maharashtra (11 seats), Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab (8 seats), and the even smaller Rashtriya Lok Dal in UP (3 seats) and Indian National Lok Dal in Haryana (1 seat).
The Asom Gana Parishad only has a seat-sharing arrangement with the BJP in Assam, but has kept out of the NDA. Neither the Akali Dal nor the Shiv Sena is expected to do well in the elections, the former because of the burden of incumbency, and the latter because it split.
The NDA doesn't look like it's going places. It has lost momentum. Internal friction is growing, and no "glue of power" binds the allies.
Nobody is courting the BJP, or responding to its overtures. Once a much-sought-after partner, it has become an unwanted, much-spurned party.
In the 1990s, when in the ascendant, the BJP built winning social coalitions -- eg, the Mandal-Kamandal platform in UP under Kalyan Singh.
But it's now floundering.
Advani has failed to galvanise party cadre and generate any popular appeal. His strategy and tactics have led to a narrowing of the BJP's base, and the expulsion of OBC and tribal leaders such as Kalyan Singh (UP) and Babulal Marandi (Jharkhand), and Uma Bharati (Madhya Pradesh). In place of Pramod Mahajan, a capable strategist and alliance-builder, he now relies on upper-class city-slickers and too-clever-by-half greenhorns.
Some of the NDA allies are deeply uncomfortable with the BJP, especially the JD-U. Sena chief Bal Thackeray has avoided meeting Advani, and declared that after the elections he would support Sharad Pawar's candidature as prime minister.
Taking their cue from the BJD, and exploiting the BJP's weakness, other allies too are likely to drive a hard bargain over ticket distribution.
The JD-U, for instance, wants to contest 26 of Bihar's 40 seats, instead of the 24 it fought in 2004. In addition, it has asked for three more tickets in UP and two more in Jharkhand. The BJP will be hard put to resist this.
The JD-U is potentially its biggest and most valuable ally.
Under JD-U Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, Bihar has seen some improvement in public service delivery and development activity, although it has a long way to go. Kumar has been able to keep the BJP under check and run an administration free of communal bias. By all accounts, he's likely to do well in the next assembly elections. But those are far away.
However, this track record doesn't guarantee a superlative performance for the JD-U in the coming Lok Sabha elections. The voter is unlikely to be enthused by the thought of putting Advani in the prime ministerial chair by backing the JD-U at the hustings. Bihar's Muslims, who form 15 percent of the population, are likely to favour Lalu Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal, although the RJD's overall seat tally could decline.
It's in the next round of political bargaining and realignment, which follows the elections, that the JD-U is likely to play a key role. If it decides to break away from the BJP, it could become an important component of the non-Congress, non-BJP Third Front.
If the NDA is going downhill, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance isn't looking set to come to power on its own. It's hard to see how the Congress can improve greatly on its 2004 tally of 145 seats. It's likely to lose significantly in Tamil Nadu and Andhra. It can at best partially make up the loss in Rajasthan, Karnataka and Maharashtra, and some small states.
The Congress has just lost a big chance in Uttar Pradesh to seal a seat-sharing deal with the Samajwadi Party, which would have greatly benefited both and helped halt the Bahujan Samaj Party's forward march. A Congress-SP alliance would have attracted significant numbers of upper caste, OBC and Muslim votes, and helped the two win about 40 seats.
However, the Congress botched up the negotiations by adopting a high-handed stand vis-a-vis the SP. They will now contest bitterly in some seats and in a "friendly" way in some others. Although the alliance hasn't been formally called off, a clean seat-sharing arrangement is dead for all intents and purposes.
Under the circumstances, it's hard to see how the UPA can win more than 200-220 seats -- well below the halfway mark of 272. Unlike in 2004, it cannot get "outside support" from the Left. The BSP will probably win about 40 seats, but that may not enable the UPA to cobble together a majority -- even if it's willing to pay the price by making Mayawati PM.
As the two alliances led by "national" parties grope for strategy and for allies, two trends are clear. India is not evolving towards a bipolar polity, but towards a complex multipolar system, in which regional and caste-based parties are indispensable to government formation at the Centre. The Left may shrink in size but will have a place of its own, which cannot be ignored.
Second, smaller parties have become disproportionately important. They are negotiating complicated arrangements to raise their electoral chances.
Most electoral contests will take place without an overarchingly powerful national issue or platform pertaining to programmes and policies. As soon as the election is over, the smaller parties will act like free, independent agents, and trade their seats to build all kinds of alliances.
The Third Front, which now comprises eight parties including the Left, the TDP, JD-S and the AIADMK, has just got a leg-up with the BSP sending a representative to its launch rally. But as things stand, the Front is unlikely to win more than 100-130 seats, including the BSP's. Even if it draws in the NCP, and BJP allies like the JD-U, AGP and INLD, it's still likely to fall short of a majority.
The Front cannot make up the deficit by getting the BJP's support, which the Left will veto. If the Front comes to power with Congress support, it's likely to remain weak and vulnerable. Absent a dramatic change in voting trends, India may have no choice but to live with uncertainty.