The significant other
A brute majority in Parliament and having a string of state governments under its belt have worked to the BJP’s advantage in creating a situation where the opposition has been decimated and a single dominant narrative prevails in the country. Dissenting voices, even when they come from long-time allies like the Shiv Sena, are ignored or drowned out.
The experience of two of his immediate predecessors, however, could convince prime minister Narendra Modi that, if only for strategic reasons, he would need to keep a working relationship with the Opposition, and some others in the opposition alliance, because they can all turn useful at one point or the other.
A couple of instances are taken, one from Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure and the other when Manmohan Singh was prime minister.
In 2006, when Manmohan Singh mooted talks with Pakistan, there was expected opposition from the BJP using the nationalistic argument. Singh then employed the devices of the UPA-Left coordination committee of the time to get the Left to strongly advocate the need for a dialogue with Pakistan. The Left, which had often been at loggerheads with the UPA government at the time, came to his rescue. In fact, in 2006, it was on a collision course with Singh’s government on the nuclear deal with the US, as the UPA pursued its energy security agenda. The Left leaders not only backed the need for a dialogue but also helpfully pointed out to the BJP and its supporters that the Vajpayee government had also supped with the enemy after Kargil. That intervention by the Left served to provide a powerful counter-narrative to the nationalistic arguments.
Before that, in 2003, Vajpayee was being pressured by the US to send troops to Iraq. It was a delicate matter, because the Vajpayee did not want to antagonise the Americans. Besides, two important members of his cabinet, Lal Krishna Advani and Jaswant Singh, also favoured the idea of sending Indian troops to Iraq. However, Vajpayee was personally opposed to this. He was also convinced that this would be counterproductive from the strategic point of view. He contacted Left leaders and sought their help to drum up opposition to the move. As with Manmohan Singh later, the Left obliged by holding countrywide demonstrations. The proposal to send Indian soldiers to Iraq was duly shelved citing these protests.

Both leaders reached out to people at the other end of the ideological divide, those who had also been a thorn in their side. But that did not stop them from always having a channel open for communication with even their harshest political adversaries. Vajpayee, a savvier politician by far than any in the present dispensation, was alive to the plurality of India and the need to engage with people who did not agree with him.
Even in the present situation, with an all-powerful establishment, it would be naïve to imagine that the government needs no help and can handle all pressures with its partymen and supporters alone. That strategy would invariably leave a credibility gap because the voices heard are likely to be the same over and over again.
Take the case of the self-proclaimed gau rakshaks and their regressive agenda of targeted violence on caste and communal lines. From the reactions of some BJP members and BJP chief ministers, it appears that the BJP recognises this as the problem that it is. The counter narrative to the gau rakshaks cannot be provided by those from the larger sangh parivar —which explains why violence by these elements has not stopped and holds the prospect of doing lasting damage to the perception of the Modi government. Yet, had the government co-opted people from across the political spectrum to counter the gau rakshaks and provided them tacit support, things might have panned out differently. For not effectively reaching out to others, the BJP often finds itself standing alone to do the damage limitation exercise. This has been the case while trying to explain job contraction or the low March quarter GDP figures. Where deft strategic alliances may have helped, the ruling establishment has opted for political management, perhaps confident that its numbers in Parliament and the state assemblies will carry them over every hurdle. Vajpayee, at the height of his power, would have pointed to the impermanence of a mandate, however emphatic it might have been at one time.
That there is a near complete breakdown between the BJP and the opposition Congress will make cooperation between the two sides difficult. It is unlikely that BJP will ever forgive Sonia Gandhi for her Maut ka saudagar epithet against Modi, nor will she easily forget all the insinuations about the Italian mob. But, at some point, BJP will have to build bridges with the other side — or at least credible elements in the opposition to ensure there is plain sailing for its tenure.
Ananda Majumdar