BJP faces heat from allies as India gears up for 2019 elections

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is having trouble with the exit of one ally and criticism from others, in what analysts say is a sign of political parties gearing up for the 2019 general election.

The Telugu Desam Party (TDP), led by Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu, quit the BJP-led coalition last week over the party's refusal to grant special status, which would include federal funding, to Andhra Pradesh.

The BJP also lost two crucial bypolls in Uttar Pradesh.

The two developments opened a floodgate of complaints from other allies.

Long-time ally Shiv Sena said there was an "environment of distrust" with the federal government and predicted that the BJP will not win a majority next year.

Federal Minister Ram Vilas Paswan, leader of the Lok Janshakti Party, said the BJP needs to mend its image among Dalits - the lowest Indian caste - and minorities, and that BJP leaders should not speak out against these communities. A BJP MP was recently quoted as saying that Muslims should leave the country.

However, the exit of TDP and complaints by other allies will not destabilise the government, as the BJP has a majority in the Lower House of Parliament.

Still, analysts noted that the party would find it difficult to replicate its landslide win next year without the help of such allies.

"The allies are feeling uneasy. They are not very sure of how well the BJP will do in the elections next year," said political analyst Amulya Ganguli.

"In all probability, the BJP may not get a majority all on its own."

The BJP remains confident that it will return to power.

It swept to victory in the 2014 elections on a wave of popularity.

It won 282 out of 543 seats and had the majority to form the government on its own.

While it included allies in government and gave them ministerial berths, they have had little say in government or in the alliance.

Since 2014, the BJP has also dominated the Indian political landscape with successive wins in state elections, most recently in the north-eastern state of Tripura.

Yet last week, it lost two crucial bypoll elections for the Lower House of Parliament in Uttar Pradesh on the back of an unusual tie-up between two rival regional parties - the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party.

The defeat has fuelled further talk of alliances among opposition members.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi said that his party is ready for alliances, at a weekend plenary meeting where the party noted in its political resolution that it is open for cooperation with all "like-minded parties".

Some regional parties have also floated the idea of a third front without the Congress or the BJP.

Analysts said the shape of the alliances and whether Mr Gandhi could emerge as a leader of an opposition alliance depended on three upcoming state polls - in Karnataka which is ruled by the Congress, and in BJP-ruled Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

If the Congress can retain Karnataka or win in other state elections, Mr Gandhi can emerge as an important point of rally, noted Dr Sandeep Shastri, a political analyst and pro vice-chancellor of Jain University. "He is making the right noises, but it is early days for opposition unity."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2018, with the headline 'BJP faces heat from allies as India gears up for 2019 elections'. Print Edition | Subscribe