Just as Communists are fond of invoking the “final crisis” of capitalism, the BJP is perennially hopeful of the lotus blooming in Kerala—at least for the past 30 years. But just as capitalism invariably survives to fight another day, Kerala has a nasty habit of confronting the BJP at the door with a Hose Full sign, but yet tempting it to try its luck the next show. This is what happened last Friday when the BJP registered its predictable zero tally but was runners-up in three constituencies.

It would have been worthwhile had the BJP decided to concentrate its resources and energy on the few places where it has a meaningful local presence and can at least retain its security deposit. Injected with an overdose of exaggerated self-importance, the BJP chose to contest nearly all the seats in Kerala, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. As affirmed by the party leadership, the logic of this massive presence was to demonstrate the quantum of its popular vote. From a purely academic perspective it may be useful to quantify the BJP support base but does it constitute a political plank? After all, the appeal to vote for the BJP because it is conducting a Census of its supporters is hardly the most riveting political intervention—even if it was backed by ‘star’ campaigners descending on thinly-attended meetings from helicopters.
Naturally, the silly appeal to vote for the BJP to strengthen its national standing didn’t secure a single MLA in any of the three states. The party came second in one constituency in West Bengal; it wasn’t even so lucky in Tamil Nadu. In both West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, the tally of lost deposits was much greater than the winning tally of Mamata Banerjee and Jayalalitha. Never mind the pretensions to being a national party, the BJP was mocked as a ‘notional’ party. In an election that saw the ouster of the Left Front after 34 years and a rejection of cronyism in Tamil Nadu, the BJP cast itself as the joker in the pack.

Ironically, there were two MPs from West Bengal and four from Tamil Nadu who were elected to the Lok Sabha on BJP tickets in 1999. True, they were the beneficiaries of an alliance with the Trinamool Congress and DMK respectively. What is significant is that the BJP couldn’t leverage its alliance with regional parties to establish a viable presence in the state. The moment those alliances ended, the BJP reverted to a position of utter irrelevance.

The implication is ominous. Unlike the four general elections between 1991 and 1999 when the BJP could supplement its traditional areas of strength with a viable presence in the rest of India, the party has stopped growing beyond its core. In 1996, 1998 and 1999, the BJP could offer a significant value addition to all those regional players that joined its coalition. In 2011, except in Assam, it revealed that it has very little to offer the regional parties in their home turf.

This is not to suggest that the BJP is a declining force. The party remains strong and buoyant in its strongholds—as the victories in the by-polls in Karnataka and Chhattisgarh indicated—but the expansion into the south and east which seemed imminent in the Nineties has been reversed. What this means is that the BJP’s ability to extract a larger understanding with regional parties is now exclusively dependent on what role a Jayalalitha, a Mamata and a Jagan Reddy imagines for themselves at the Centre.

The Congress can still chip in at the state level with a small contribution to woo a Dravidian party or a Trinamool Congress; the BJP has no cards to play outside its home turf and, on the contrary, is viewed as too much of a risk for regional parties to want to hobnob with it.
With the Left losing out in both West Bengal and Kerala, its ability to be a magnet for a non-BJP, anti-Congress alliance has also diminished. However, for many of the regional players, joining the NDA is not a realistic option because association with the BJP doesn’t give them any incremental votes to compensate for minority desertions. At the same time, the regional parties are too keenly aware that there is a perceptible anti-Congress mood, particularly in southern India, that will be dissipated if no possible alternative is seen to be emerging at the Centre.

There is an emerging paradox. The BJP and the regional parties need each other if they are to contemplate an alternative coalition at the Centre. But as a national party with national aspirations, the BJP needs the regional parties more. In 1998, the mutual interdependence was regulated by the BJP. Today, the regional players wouldn’t mind tasting the Delhi cake but not if it threatens their own domestic situation.

The implication is clear: the leader of any revitalised NDA will have to be chosen by a cluster of non-Congress regional parties. The BJP has to choose between a non-dominant status and a further spell in the opposition. If the BJP ranks are bereft of a leader who is acceptable to all of India and who isn’t a repellent, the choice will naturally devolve on Nitish Kumar.