In March 2017, in the wake of the Uttar Pradesh elections, the BJP had appeared invincible. Gujarat had then seemed a fait accompli. Instead, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had to stake his personal prestige addressing more than two dozen rallies, inaugurating even flyovers, and resort to a highly emotional, personalised campaign virtually to scrape through. Gujarat sent a signal that the ground was shifting in the PM's home state. Then came the Rajasthan bypolls, and they, too, had their own message. The scale of the Congress's victories in all the three byelections showed a wave in favour of India's grand old party and an anger against the Vasundhara Raje government.
Today, notwithstanding their rhetoric, many BJP leaders are no longer sure that they can get a majority on their own in 2019 as Modi had swung for them in 2014. It would be difficult to repeat the party's performance in the north and west, where it had peaked in many states.
With the 282 seats it won in 2014, the BJP could manage to keep its allies on a tight leash even as it included them in government. Today, the allies - and potential allies -- are flexing their muscle. It is in the nature of politics that when the bigger party in a coalition starts to weaken, the smaller parties start to assert and demand their pound of flesh at every turn. This is what the BJP's major allies are doing - the Shiv Sena, Akali Dal and TDP.
Aware of the restiveness amongst the allies, and with the BJP's own numbers in the Lok Sabha down to 273 seats, just one more than the half-way mark of 272, Modi is now bending over backwards to address their concerns. He reminded an irate TDP, which had threatened to quit the NDA because Andhra was not given its special package in the Union budget, the circumstances of its birth -- N T Rama Rao had quit films to float the TDP on the issue of Telugu pride after Rajiv Gandhi insulted the then chief minister T Anjaiah. But so unhappy is Andhra CM Chandrababu Naidu at being taken for granted that he exhorted his party MPs to show their anger in Parliament even if it meant they were suspended or expelled.
To placate the TDP, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley promised to make extra-budgetary provisions for Andhra, but Naidu isn't buying.
As it is, the Shiv Sena, the BJP's oldest ally, chafing at being reduced to being the junior partner in Maharashtra, had declared that it is going to part company with the BJP before the next general elections. The Akalis, too, have been blowing hot and cold. After Nitish Kumar's re-entry into the NDA, the BJP's smaller allies from Bihar - Upendra Kushwaha and Jitan Manjhi -- are believed to have opened channels with Lalu Yadav's RJD.
Nitish, too, has made it plain that he is opposed to simultaneous elections, Modi's proposition born of the RSS idea of moving towards "one nation, one state, one legislature" that M S Golwalkar propounded at one time.
It is early days yet, but the close call in Gujarat and the Rajasthan victories have made regional groupings look at the Congress with new eyes.
This is not to say that the Modi-Amit Shah duo will sit back and take things lying down. They will continue to flog the nationalism theme with a Hindutva subtext using every opportunity to polarise society and effect a Hindutva consolidation in their favour. The BJP brass hopes that the Ayodhya verdict later this year will go in their favour, although the Supreme Court has now called it a land dispute. They will once again up the ante on Article 370 or 35A in Kashmir and rake up Uniform Civil Code. The fast-track courts proposed by the Supreme Court may increasingly try corruption cases against opposition leaders, denting their credibility.
On a more positive note, the National Health Protection Scheme announced in the budget for 10 crore poor families, if rolled out by October and implemented properly, could help BJP regain some sheen. So also, the minimum support price (MSP) scheme is belated acknowledgement of the distress and agitation among farmers.
The Amit Shah "school of election management" will certainly try and keep the opposition divided by using every Machiavellian trick in the book. If Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati (and Congress) team up in UP, it would make the going rough for the BJP. For the moment, and this is curious, both have ruled it out and the BJP will do its utmost to keep it that way. Or, if the Congress and NCP join hands in Maharashtra, with the possibility of a tacit understanding with the Shiv Sena, it will become an uphill struggle for the BJP in yet another large state.
Mamata Banerji, a strident critic of Modi, continues to hold her ground, and West Bengal is also a large state. In Tamil Nadu, MK Stalin is seen as a frontrunner. His DMK, which is supposedly an ally of the Congress, may be keeping its options open (more so after the acquittal of its leaders in the 2G spectrum case). Its leaders did not attend the recent opposition meetings called by Sharad Pawar or Sonia Gandhi. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi, strongly placed for the next electoral round, will also see which way the wind blows before revealing its cards.
Although Nitish Kumar has joined the NDA, paradoxically it has led to increased sympathy for Lalu Yadav amongst Yadavs and Muslims as also some of the most backward castes, who had moved away from him.
If the BJP manages to defeat the CPM government in Tripura, led by the iconic CM Manik Sarkar, it will be an indication that the party could make headway in other "new" areas. As it is, the BJP has made strides in West Bengal and increased its vote base in Kerala. But will this offset the losses the party is likely to suffer in the Hindi heartland?
Suddenly, the 2019 Lok Sabha polls looks like an open game. And the BJP's regional allies and other regional parties have certainly - and suddenly -- acquired an importance all their own.
(The writer is a senior journalist and political analyst based in New Delhi)