When Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) quit the National Democratic Alliance in June 2013 over Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial candidature, it was the fourteenth party to quit the NDA, an alliance whose prospects were seemingly in peril in a polity where regional parties were growing ever stronger. Five years later, when the Janata Dal (United) returned to the fold, the pendulum had swung the other way – regional parties need the alliance far more than its chief constituent does.

Like the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, the NDA, first formed in 1998 under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is an informal arrangement in many ways – there is no official record of its existence, and in the case of the current ruling coalition, no common minimum programme. Constituents have moved seamlessly in and out, the Janata Dal (United) being a prime example. The NDA is commonly described as being to the right of centre on social values, including religious freedoms and national security, and the UPA to the left of centre, but there is little hard evidence of ideological consistency within the coalitions. In surveys, including the 2012 World Values Survey, voters who supported current NDA constituents like the Shiv Sena and the Shiromani Akali Dal did not consistently hold views to the right of the centre, an analysis of views on hot-button issues split by voting intention shows.

In 2014, the BJP won 282 seats. It was the best ever performance of a non-Congress party, and the best performance of an individual party since Rajiv Gandhi led the Congress to a sweeping victory in 1984 after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. It placed the BJP in the enviable position of having a simple majority by itself. After several bye-election losses, the party is now down to 273 seats, but still retains a simple majority in the 543-seat Lok Sabha. In all, its allies now bring 39 seats.

Since 2014, BJP has swept state elections across the country. The party is now in power by itself in seven states, the majority alliance partner in eight states and the minority alliance partner in four states. It sits in the opposition in only eight assemblies. Jammu & Kashmir, where the BJP was the junior ally until last year, is now under President’s Rule after the party pulled its support to the People’s Democratic Party. The BJP has no MLAs in Mizoram and Tamil Nadu.

Yet, the breaking up of the alliance with the People’s Democratic Party, the exit of the Telugu Desam Party and the muscle-flexing of the Shiv Sena and Janata Dal (United) is used by some commentators as evidence of allies deserting the BJP. So does the BJP need allies or do allies need the BJP?

There is only limited empirical evidence about whether splitting from the BJP is good or bad for an ally, since bye-elections and local body elections are not good enough indicators. One piece of evidence comes from Maharashtra, where the BJP and the Shiv Sena contested together in the Lok Sabha elections and separately in the assembly elections six months later. The Shiv Sena saw its voteshare crash dramatically, and the BJP got more seats than it.

The other evidence comes from Andhra Pradesh, where in March this year, the Telugu Desam Party walked out of NDA over the Centre not granting special status for the state – or, to be more precise, over Jagan Mohan Reddy of the YSR Congress firing up voters over the issue and forcing Chandrababu Naidu’s hand. A May 2018 Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies nationally representative opinion poll around the theme of voting intentions found that the Telugu Desam Party was doing better in Andhra Pradesh than it was at the start of the year, when it was still in the NDA. But that might not be enough to undo the damage done to the TDP: an October 2018 CVoter opinion poll found that compared to 2014, support for the Telugu Desam Party had crashed and the YSR Congress had scooped its seats up.

The Lokniti-CSDS poll found that nationally the BJP’s “voteshare” – the share of survey respondents who said they intended to vote for a particular party – had fallen substantially since May 2017, but that of its allies had not. The “voteshare” of the Congress and other parties had grown.

Fearing anti-incumbency, the BJP’s allies seem to have been obliged to make combative noises in public, and this might be affecting their voters. The share of BJP ally voters who said that Modi should get another chance in 2019 had fallen sharply.

BJP vs The Rest

But the BJP’s stupendous rise since 2014 has meant that while it could always use allies, it is far less dependent on them for a potential 2019 victory compared to the Congress. The May 2018 Lokniti poll projects a voteshare of 32% for the BJP alone, slightly higher than the 31% that propelled it to victory in 2014. The October 2018 CVoter poll projects outcomes for the NDA as a whole, estimating 276 seats for the alliance, with a voteshare of 38%.

“The new narrative in Indian politics is BJP versus The Rest,” says Rahul Verma, political scientist and PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, who has researched voting behaviour and party politics. Where allies could play a deciding role in 2019 is in states where a dominant regional force is currently unallied, says Verma. If the Congress succeeds in joining the Bahujan Samaj Party-Samajwadi Party alliance in Uttar Pradesh, or if either party ties up with a significant share of parties that are expected to do well in their states in 2019 – Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, the YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh, the Telangana Rashtra Samiti in Telangana, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu or the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal – this could change tallies meaningfully.

The BJP has traditionally allied with parties that bring in voters from social groups that do not support it – the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab, for example, which brings in Sikh votes. In the state elections since 2014, the party has fallen back on the same strategy, allying with the Indigenous People’s Front in Tripura which brought in tribal votes. But as the BJP’s own support base widens, and the draw of Modi, whose candidature so divided the BJP’s allies in the past, remains strong, it may find it needs fewer allies – as long as it can hold on to the new believers.

In previous stories in this series, Rukmini has looked at whether young voters are closely aligned with the BJP and whether the saffron party has a loyal caste ‘votebank’. Read all the stories in the How India Votes series here.