This week, the AIADMK became the fifth key regional party to walk out of the BJP-led NDA coalition. Is shedding allies right before a national election a wise move? Then again, does the BJP even need their help to win?
Researched by: Rachel John & Anannya Parekh
The four phases of Indian politics
Yogendra Yadav most famously divided India’s electoral history into four phases—from the first election in 1952 until the sixteenth in 2014. They are as follows:
First party system: lasted from 1952 to 1967—and was dominated by a single party: the Congress—which held power both at the Centre and the states:
While a raft of opposition parties keenly contested elections, opposition forces were badly fragmented, which limited their ability to mount a serious campaign to unseat the Congress. Instead, the most salient political competition often occurred between factions within the Congress Party representing different ideological viewpoint.
Second party system: Between 1967 and 1989, Congress begins to cede political ground to regional parties in the states:
The 1960s gave rise to India’s “first democratic upsurge”—to borrow Yadav’s term—when populous OBC groups first mobilized to ensure that their political power was in greater alignment with their demographic weight and their increasing economic clout.
But Indira Gandhi remained firmly in power—other than briefly losing power soon after the Emergency. The national opposition was weak—and their anti-Congress coalition proved fragile.
Third party system: Between 1989 and 2014, Indian politics were driven by three forces: “Mandal, masjid, and market.” The Mandal Commission—which broadened caste reservations to Other Backward Castes—helped fuel the power of regional caste-based leaders—be it Lalu Yadav or Mayawati. Meanwhile, BJP soared on the back of its aggressive Hindutva campaign around Babri Masjid. And the entire polity was transformed by the forces of liberalisation.
Congress lost its grip on the Centre—and became reliant on allies to hold on to power. This was the era of coalition governments—UPA vs NDA—each revolving around the two poles of Congress and the BJP.
The fourth party system: The 2014 elections marked the first time a single party won a majority of Lok Sabha seats since 1984—scoring 282 seats. In 2019, its victory was even bigger. Over the course of a decade—from 2009 to 2019—the saffron party went from just 116 seats and 18.8% of the vote to 303 seats and 37.4% of the vote. In 2019, won over 50% of the popular vote in these 224 seats. In 1996, this number was 35.
As we head into the 2024 elections, BJP looks a lot like the Congress party of yore—facing a ragtag coalition of opposition parties. It has become what Milan Vaishnav calls “a system-defining party, in response to which all others position themselves.”
But, but, but: As Vaishnav cautions:
To be clear, the emergence of a new party system says nothing about the endurance of that electoral order. While India’s previous three systems each had a degree of staying power, the fate of the fourth party system will eventually hinge on the precise dynamics of India’s party politics and the vagaries or voter behavior. In addition, the transition from one system to the next can usually only be discerned ex post and with the benefit of retrospective evaluation and hindsight. The BJP’s emergence as a hegemonic force does not mean that the party is somehow inoculated from electoral setbacks.
Point to note: Some political scientists agree that BJP has become “electorally dominant” but insist it is not yet hegemonic—as in its ideology defines Indian politics.
The era of Modi: Who needs allies?
The BJP has used its immense political clout to take a ‘bada bhai’ approach to its allies. The party defines the line—and their partners have to toe it. This has led to a series of splits with strong regional parties who aren’t willing to play junior partner—or have their demands ignored:
Telugu Desam: was first to leave the NDA in 2018—furious that Andhra Pradesh would not be granted special status after the creation of Telangana. At the time, CM Chandrababu Naidu claimed Arun Jaitley insinuated that TDP was "asking for money at the expense of the country's defence budget... Jaitley spoke like we asked for all the money. We felt insulted."
Shiv Sena: walked out to join forces with Congress and the NCP in Maharashtra in 2019. The reason: BJP state party chief Devendra Fadnavis refused to cede the CM gaddi seat to Uddhav Thackeray. Point to note: Shiv Sena had been a BJP ally since 1984.
Shiromani Akali Dal: broke with the BJP in September 2020 over the farm bills and the protests it triggered. The saffron party refused to back down—forcing the Akalis to choose between their electoral base and its diktat. The Akali Dali walked out—and the BJP government eventually junked the farm bills in November 2021.
Janata Dal (United): left the alliance in 2022—claiming that the BJP was intent on pulling a Shiv Sena-like coup and toppling Nitish Kumar. Also not helping: the party’s haul of 43 seats was nearly half of the BJP’s tally of 74 in the 2020 Assembly polls.
AIADMK: said goodbye to the BJP after its state party chief repeatedly insulted its revered leaders like Annadurai. Also: The party’s Hindutva and caste politics were at odds with AIADMK’s base:
If we had contested with the BJP in 2024, our Dalit and minority support base would have gone forever. Our move now enables us to reclaim our support base, which is essential for our political survival and success in 2026.
The NDA today: consists of 38 regional parties—most of whom look insignificant at first blush. The largest is Eknath Shinde’s breakaway Shiv Sena faction—which has 13 Lok Sabha seats. But he’s never faced the Shiv Sena voters after kicking Thackeray off the throne—and his actual electoral pull remains untested. The same is true of the NCP rebel faction led by Ajit Pawar—who brought one of the party’s four MPs with him. The BJP also hooked up with JD(S) in Karnataka—which won a single seat in the last election.
Overall, the parties in the NDA pale in comparison to those who comprise the INDIA coalition:
For instance, the BJP’s current allies collectively got a 7% vote share and 29 seats in 2019… In contrast, the BJP, the single-largest party, secured 303 Lok Sabha seats with 37.3% vote share. Of the total 37 allies, nine did not field candidates and another 16 drew a blank in 2019. Seven parties managed to win one seat each. To put in perspective the lopsided seat share, the BJP (303), the Eknath Shinde’s Shiv Sena (13), the Apna Dal (Sonelal) (2) and the now split Lok Janshakti Party (6) account for 324 seats.
That said, some analysts argue these parties help muster the vote of key subcastes in critical seats in their respective states. As one BJP leader puts it: “Lord Ram sought everyone’s help in his battle against Ravan. We also can’t be taking chances… sometimes, even a 1% difference in vote share can bring victory,”
Quote to note: In the current NDA, the power equation between the BJP and its allies is crystal clear. None of them can win a single state election by themselves—or pose a real threat to the BJP even in their territory. And that’s the way the party leadership likes it, as one expert notes:
The behaviour of the BJP vis a vis its allies of the past is a function of power, of negotiating from a position of strength, rather than any emotional disconnect. It is an electorally dominant party, and is aggressive in wanting to expand its base. If the BJP is not behaving like the party with 138 seats that it had in 2004, there is a cold hard calculation to back it.
As for opinion polls: They show that the BJP can indeed afford to take a high-handed approach. The India Today-CVOTER survey predicts that the NDA is poised to win 306 seats—with BJP scoring 287. OTOH, the INDIA alliance will only eke out 193 seats—of which Congress will get 74. The India TV-CNX poll numbers are similar—290 for the BJP—and 318 for NDA. The BJP totals are lower than its 303-seat haul in 2019—but still enough to get it past the halfway mark of 272.
But, but, but: INDIA parties did surprisingly well in recent bypolls—winning four out of seven seats. Also this: BJP has long enjoyed the benefit of a triangular contest—where a third party like AAP could be relied on to undercut Congress’ support. A truly coordinated INDIA strategy may be harder to defeat. So it isn’t surprising that the BJP is trying to woo back the Akali Dal and Telugu Desam—and it may even kiss and make up with AIADMK.
The bottomline: Let the games begin!
Frontline is best on the war of alliances—and why BJP ought to worry about INDIA. Ashutosh in NDTV argues BJP needs allies—while Unnati Sharma in The Print lays out why the current set of small parties are enough to secure victory. The Hindu and Moneycontrol offer their take on BJP’s South strategy. Milan Vaishnav in Carnegie Endowment has a detailed piece on the four party systems. India Today does the math on whether INDIA can challenge the BJP. The Quint is best on why BJP keeps losing its closest allies.