In a matter of just two days, the Bharatiya Janata Party secured pre-poll alliances in two electorally significant states – Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu – that account for 87 of the 543 elected Lok Sabha seats.

In Maharashtra, the ruling party on Monday firmed up its old alliance with the Shiv Sena. In Tamil Nadu, it worked out an arrangement on Tuesday with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Pattali Makkal Katchi. The party had finalised a deal with Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) in Bihar in October.

The speed and certainty with which the BJP moved to strike these pacts reflects poorly on Opposition parties, whose plan to form a “grand alliance” is mired in confusion and squabbling between regional parties and the Congress. Though the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party have formed an alliance in Maharashtra, there is still ambiguity about the sharing of seats. Similarly, in Bihar, a grand alliance has been announced but the final seat-sharing arrangement is yet to be worked out. In both these states, the major parties are struggling to accommodate their smaller allies. Indeed, this partly explains why the Pattali Makkal Katchi went with the BJP rather than with the Congress-Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam combine.

S Ramadoss’s party enjoys strong support in northern Tamil Nadu, particularly among the Vanniyars, an Other Backward Classes community. It was reportedly inclined to join the Congress-DMK alliance after being denied a berth in the Union ministry. But the party had a rethink after the BJP offered it six Lok Sabha seats, more than the Opposition alliance was ready to part with.

In spite of constantly criticising the BJP for the past four years and even passing a resolution in January to contest the general election alone, the Shiv Sena has now decided to stick with its ally. It helped that the BJP was ready to cede some ground, offering to contest 25 of Maharashtra’s 48 seats and leave 23 to the Sena as against 20 seats in 2014. Not that the BJP had much choice. Facing anti-incumbency in the state, the ruling party would certainly have suffered had it gone it alone.

A day after wrapping up the deal with the Sena on Monday, the BJP moved swiftly to Tamil Nadu, formalising an alliance with the AIADMK and the Pattali Makkal Katchi. The arrangement is yet to be fully worked out though. The BJP will contest five of the state’s 39 seats and the Pattali Makkal Katchi six, but there is no word yet on the rest.

Contrast this with how the Congress has gone about forming alliances. The party is still undecided about allying with the Trinamool Congress or the Left Front in West Bengal, creating confusion among its workers. While the party’s state leaders are in favour of allying with the Left Front, the central leadership seems to be leaning towards Mamata Banerjee.

In Andhra Pradesh, several senior leaders have quit the Congress after the leadership decided to go it alone. In Kerala, the allies are demanding more seats than the party is willing to concede, adding to its woes ahead of the election.

Not surprisingly then, the BJP is seen to have stolen a march on its its main rival. Political commentators pointed out that the manner in which the BJP formed the alliances in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra shows the ruling party is always a step ahead of the competition when it comes to electoral decision-making.

Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray embraces BJP President Amit Shah after their announced an alliance in Maharashtra for the Lok Sabha elections. Credit: BJP via Twitter

Sudheendra Kulkarni, a former aide to the late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the BJP elder LK Advani, said the ruling party is “playing on the front foot” not only in making alliances but also in tapping into the “overall mood in the country” after the Pulwama attack. “Of course, what the BJP is doing is also ‘milavat politics’ – coming together of disparate parties just to retain power – something Prime Minister Narendra Modi has accused the opposition of,” he added. “Nevertheless, the BJP appears to form a solid core around which other smaller parties are gravitating. This is not the case with the Opposition, which lacks a strong magnet at the Centre.”

Yogendra Yadav, the psephologist and leader of the Swaraj India party, argued that BJP’s willingness to concede ground to its allies in Bihar and Maharashtra reflects a strategy centered around winning elections. “You may accuse BJP of many things but what it doesn’t lack is clarity and coherence. BJP thinks like a well-organised unit unlike the mahagathbandhan,” he said. “In Bihar and Maharashtra, BJP has settled for a bargain which indicates its dwindling popularity and also its desire to win elections.”

Complementing the BJP for its approach to alliance-making, Sanjay Kumar, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, said giving more seats to its allies than in 2014 is a sign of the saffron party’s decisiveness and quick decision-making.

He argued that forming pre-poll alliances early will benefit the BJP in the election as the workers of the alliance partners will get ample time to coordinate on the ground. “But early announcement of pre-poll alliances also has its disadvantages,” he added. “Last minute alliances help negate the rebel factor and keep the motivational levels of local leaders high. If they know six months before the election their ticket has been cancelled, they are unlikely to invest so much time and energy.”

On the other hand, Kumar argued, the Congress’s inability to clearly lay out its goals has become a major impediment in achieving Opposition unity. “They are unable to differentiate between long-term and short-term goals,” he explained. “This is leading to them not conceding space to regional parties.”

Kumar also criticised the Congress for “not overcoming its memory of being the grand old party” and invoking its past glory while sitting at the negotiation table. “The party’s leadership fails to realise the reality on the ground and does not know how much to concede and how much not to,” he said.

Kulkarni said, “The dilemma before the Congress is this: how to harmonise two different strategies for the 2019 parliamentary election – preventing the BJP’s return and achieving its own self-rejuvenation.”