New phase in coalition politics; Gujarat riots will no longer be cut-off point for regional parties

On the afternoon of December 27, 2003, Congress president Sonia Gandhi walked from her 10 Janpath residence to the neighbouring 12 Janpath, Dalit leader Ram Vilas Paswan’s house.

Their talk over tea and a photo-op that followed marked the informal launch of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the Congress-led coalition that has been in power since 2004.

Mr. Paswan severing ties with the Congress on Wednesday and his willingness to jump on the BJP bandwagon mark the beginning of a new phase in coalition politics — the 2002 Gujarat riots are no longer a cut-off point for regional parties.

Since 2002, political realignments have taken place in two phases. In the first, the BJP became “untouchable” for many regional parties, and the Congress became the preferred choice for most. Even when the Left parted ways in 2008, the Congress had no difficulty finding a new partner in the Trinamool Congress.

By the end of the 2009 elections, the Congress was spoilt for choice. The Uttar Pradesh and Bihar rivals, SP-BSP and RJD-LJP, respectively, were supporting the Congress in Delhi. Though the Congress lost allies such as the TRS midway, more parties wanted to be with the party.

In the second phase, the alliance wind began to turn against the Congress, but the BJP still remained anathema to regional parties. Three years into the second UPA government, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress exited in September 2012 and within months, the DMK too parted ways.

But the Gujarat riots remained a roadblock for the BJP. In fact, the elevation of Narendra Modi as the prime ministerial candidate led to the break-up of the BJP’s alliance with the JD(U) in Bihar. The BJP was left with only two partners — the Shiv Sena and the Akali Dal — both not adding much to what the BJP needed desperately — credibility.

That is why Mr. Paswan’s somersault in his approach to the Gujarat Chief Minister is a huge gain for the BJP and Mr. Modi. Mr. Paswan has been positioning himself as a champion of Muslim rights since 2003, but in a turnaround, he has virtually endorsed the BJP position that the 2002 riots cannot remain the cut-off date forever.

Though Mr. Paswan himself avoided that question on Wednesday, his son Chirag said a day earlier that courts had given a clean chit to Mr. Modi and the issue was closed.

Mr. Paswan’s turnaround is as significant to the BJP as the one by veteran socialist George Fernandes in 1998. That year, after the collapse of the National Front government, Mr. Fernandes joined hands with the BJP with the question: “If the demolition of the Babri Masjid is the cut-off date, for how long will you hold on to that position?” Mr. Fernandes legitimised the BJP and gathered more alliance partners for it.”

Mr. Paswan’s announcement will have that effect too, with the TDP and the MDMK likely to follow suit in the next few days. “Mr. Paswan’s new position is very significant as he had left the NDA on the question of Gujarat and is now returning to it under the leadership of Mr. Modi,” a senior BJP functionary told The Hindu.

Besides giving the BJP an image makeover, its position in Bihar, which sends 40 MPs to the Lok Sabha, will be bolstered by Mr. Paswan’s alliance. Getting at least 20 of these 40 seats is essential for the BJP to cross the 200-mark. “We are looking at 25 seats now,” a BJP leader from Bihar said.