The new year saw the unusual spectacle of Prime Minister Narendra Modi sitting down for a long interview. Instead of his characteristic aggression and going on the offensive, he seemed to have taken deliberate care to sound reasonable and balanced. The interview, it was clear, was essentially an attempt at damage control. The prime minister had come prepared with explanations and clarifications for the criticisms that have been levelled at him and his party of late.

Modi realises that he needs to to win back the floating voter who may have strayed away from the Bharatiya Janata Party. The messaging seemed to have been carefully calibrated. On the question of Ram temple in Ayodhya, for example, he said his government would wait for the court to give its verdict, as a responsible, constitutionally bound entity. But in the same breath he also managed to attack the Congress (blaming its lawyers for delaying the judicial process) and to suggest that options such as an ordinance to build the temple were a possibility after the judicial process gets over, thus taking care to placate the Sangh parivar, which has upped the ante on the construction of the temple.

Significantly, Modi dwelt on all that his government has done for the middle class, which had been a loyal vote base of the BJP but which too is becoming restive and unhappy, along with the farmers and those in the informal sector.

The reasons are not too difficult to seek.

At the beginning of 2018, the Bharatiya Janata Party had showed signs of a weakening in Gujarat, but had managed to stay on top of the situation. At the start of 2019, the weakening has become more pronounced. Last year, the party was defeated in important bye-polls in Alwar and Ajmer in Rajasthan, and Gorakhpur, Phulpur and Kairana in Uttar Pradesh. It failed to make the grade in Karnataka in May, and in December was removed from power in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.

The most tantalising response to the BJP’s defeat in these three states had come from Union Minister Nitin Gadkari. In a statement that would have been unthinkable a year ago, he called upon leaders to share the blame for defeats just as they took credit for victories. Gadkari also made a point of praising India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, whom the present BJP leadership loves to hate.

It is inconceivable that Gadkari would say what he did without the backing of powerful elements in the Sangh Parivar. Gadkari’s proximity to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leadership is known, and at one time he was seen as a leader who the Sangh might back for the prime minister’s post. He was pushed out of the race to become party chief in January 2013 when a last-minute leak took place about his alleged wrongdoing during his tenure as Public Works Department minister in Maharashtra in the nineties. Nine months later, Narendra Modi was crowned the BJP’s prime ministerial face for the 2014 general elections, backed by the Sangh.

Gadkari’s words about “tolerance” being the essence of Indian culture in the light of growing mob violence in the country, emphasise “moderation”, which could have an appeal for potential allies, were the BJP to need them after the elections.

Many believe that the RSS had put to test the appeal of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath when he was asked to campaign extensively in the Assembly elections in five states held in November and December. Though Adityanath addressed as many as 69 rallies in these states, he did not create the ripples he was expected to with his hard Hindutva rhetoric. When he was picked to head the Uttar Pradesh government in 2017, it was the RSS that had tipped the scales in Adityanath’s favour – over Modi’s favourite, Union Minister Manoj Sinha – in the belief he would help consolidate Hindus in BJP’s favour in 2019.

Gadkari’s remarks had created a buzz in political circles. Were they an attempt to chasten Modi or a signal from the RSS that it could have other options up its sleeve? Some important Sangh functionaries openly urged the RSS to replace Modi with Gadkari if they wanted the BJP to win the 2019 general elections.

Of course, when a party weakens, knives start to be brandished against the leadership. Those who had been lying low suddenly get emboldened. Others start to look for greener pastures.

Pacifying allies

The manner in which the BJP’s allies have started to flex their muscles has also underscored the party’s growing vulnerability. That a party led by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah should agree to give ally Janata Dal (United) as many as 17 Lok Sabha seats to contest in Bihar and scale down its own number to 17 seats, shows that the BJP is going out of its way to accommodate allies. The party has also given six seats to Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party and threw in a Rajya Sabha seat for Paswan as an extra sop when his party showed signs of crossing over to the Opposition. In 2014, the BJP had contested in 30 of Bihar’s 40 seats, and won 22.

In Maharashtra, Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray has got away with his blistering attack against Modi , calling him a “chor” or thief, adding insult to injury by borrowing words used by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi to describe the prime minister. But the BJP has remained silent, and the Sena continues to be a part of the Modi government. The otherwise powerful Modi and Shah are suddenly having to stoop to conquer.

The exit of allies is no less worrying. The Telugu Desam Party left the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in March. In Bihar, former NDA ally Rashtriya Lok Samta Party, led by Upendra Kushwaha, joined the Opposition’s grand alliance in December. Jitin Majhi, representing Musehars, the most deprived of all Dalit communities, left the BJP in February, all of which will make the battle of Bihar far from the cakewalk it was for the BJP in 2014.

The resignation of Savitribai Phule, who was one of the BJP’s most vocal MPs in Uttar Pradesh, and a Dalit at that, represents not just the exit of an individual who may be gravitating towards the Bahujan Samaj Party. It is one more straw in the wind to indicate Dalit disenchantment with the BJP. That is bad news in a state like Uttar Pradesh, where the Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Lok Dal are expected to tie up for the general elections. With or without the Congress, this grand alliance will give sleepless nights to the BJP.

The Ram Mandir card

Many in the BJP bank on the Ram mandir to do the trick for the party, with Hindutva expected to act as the glue to bring together the upper castes, the Other Backward Classes and the Dalits. They hope to keep the Ayodhya pot boiling, with demands to build the mandir through the legislative route and calls to the Supreme Court to expedite its verdict on the Ayodhya title suit appeals. The idea is that it would reassure the BJP’s restive core constituency, and remind the upper castes, otherwise unhappy with the party, of their Hindu identity, preventing them from straying to other pastures.

The upper caste anger against the BJP for its amendment in the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act cost the party some support in the recent state elections, without a commensurate accretion of support from Dalits and Adivasis. In fact, Dalits-Adivasis-Other Backward Classes deserted the party in large numbers in Chhattisgarh. This then raises the question: Is the BJP now falling between two stools as the Congress did in the nineties after the implementation of the Mandal report providing job reservations for Other Backward Classes?

Taking a cue from the central message of the five state elections – that it was economic issues that agitated people – the BJP leadership lost no time in putting correctives in place. On Monday, the Union government reduced the price of LPG cylinders. With farmers’ distress emerging as a live electoral issue, it is veering around to adopting the “KCR formula” of giving cash transfers to small farmers. This formula is being held up as a reason Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao, popularly known as KCR, managed to retain power in his state in last month’s elections. On December 22, days after the election results, the Union government announced it was moving 23 goods and services from the highest tax brackets of 28% and 18% to lower slabs. This was evidently to try and undo the electoral damage caused by unhappiness over the Goods and Services Tax system introduced in July 2017.

It will be naïve to believe that Modi will not have a plan up his sleeve or will quietly make way for someone else were such a demand to be raised. He still enjoys goodwill – many people in the three states that voted the BJP out had talked about “voting Modi in 2019”– even as his support has been dented amongst farmers, Dalits, the unemployed and minorities. It may be difficult for the BJP-Sangh to dislodge Modi – unless the allies decide to make their support contingent on a change of guard after the elections.

The situation today is an evolving one. It has opened up possibilities for the Opposition. So far it had been a one-sided game. In 2014, it was a Narendra Modi versus Rahul Gandhi fight, with Gandhi swept away by the Modi tsunami. The 2019 battle promises to be one coalition versus another coalition, and will be decided, in good measure, by who has how many allies.