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Decline of India's political leviathans

As India braces for another split verdict in the forthcoming general election, Mahesh Rangarajan analyses the decline of the country's national parties.

Neither of the premier parties, Congress or the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is confident of leading their respective alliances to full power.

India is completing a decade in which coalitions dominated by one or the other have held power.

After five years at the helm, the alliance headed by Dr Manmohan Singh has much to smile about. For four of these years, growth rates were well over 8% and even now, amid a global slump, India will be the world's second fastest growing economy.

Yet, the Congress is a shadow of its former self. It last secured a clear majority in the 543-member lower house of the parliament a quarter of a century ago.

Its present coalition is sustained by an array of regional parties, who are now busy driving hard bargains in seat sharing.

Its rival, the BJP, is seeing its alliance actually fall apart.

For the first time since 1998, it will have no ally in two key southern states, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

Recently a long time ally in the eastern state of Orissa pulled away, in part due to the strident and violent campaign by the BJP's cultural fraternal allies against religious minorities in the state last winter.

Excluded groups

India's last experience of a third coalition, then christened the United Front, was for two years from mid-1996 onwards. Held together by support from the communists from outside, it was dominated by regional parties.

The coalition government was headed by HD Deve Gowda, who moved in from the chief minister's office in Karnataka. He did not last long but more than one ambitious regional satrap sees him as precedent, not exception.

Given that Indian states can be large and populous, the term "regional" is something of a misnomer. Uttar Pradesh, the most populous, has 190 million people, as many as Brazil.

Its chief minister Mayawati, may well be a contender. She is both a woman and Dalit; both excluded social groups able to get to power via political mobilisation via the ballot box.

States in the south and west have the added advantage of extensive external trade, with chief ministers very much at ease negotiating with transnational companies or the World Bank.

N Chandrababu Naidu lost power in 2004 in a landslide in Andhra Pradesh in southern India. A pioneer in e-governance, he has forged state-level alliances with smaller parties and reached out to farmers and the rural poor. The "bete noire" of Congress, he has moved away from the BJP.

Mr Naidu's choice is symbolic of the re-emergence of the Third Front in Indian politics.

It is of course easier to define this space by explaining what it is not. There is no one large all-India party at its core. All these are parties that favour a more federal, decentralised polity.

Marginal players

In general, they lean more towards rural than urban voters. Though not anti-reform, they would see welfare as contingent on more public action, not market forces.

Common to their growth is the decline of the larger national parties.

In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress and BJP between them won just 19 of the 80 seats in the last general elections. The former is a marginal player in the entire Gangetic basin, not just in Uttar Pradesh but in Bihar and West Bengal.

In turn, the BJP has failed to emerge as an autonomous force in much of eastern and most of southern India. Since its defeat in 2004, it has also lost out on its ability to win over and hold on to alliances with regional players.

As elections near, with results out on 16 May after a five-phase poll across this vast land, India is certain to see another bout of coalition government.

But the baton may just pass from Congress hands. It may well have to do business with a conglomerate of regional parties that drive a bargain to share power or worse still, hold it with support from the outside.

Such an arrangement will be shaky. Congress still hopes to get enough seats, even if not its present 150, to fashion a post-poll alliance that can continue to rule India. Even here, a lower score would mean more bargaining power for state level parties.

While by no means certain, there is a clear trend at work.

The polity first saw the removal of national parties from key states by regional players. These now hope to move from sharing power to shaping the federal government.

Fading appeal

The Congress party's decline can be traced to the late 1980s. This is when it lost its appeal to a vast section of the under classes, especially the religious minorities who felt it was compromising on pluralism at the cost of their physical security.

It also was unable to appeal to a new generation of leaders who mobilised those at the lower end of the caste pyramid. Initially, the cultivating communities of north India and then the Dalits, once ostracised as "untouchables", broke away.

Beyond Hindi speaking north India, regional parties also speak for a distinct local personality. The BJP far less than the Congress never quite managed, except in Gujarat, to adequately accommodate regional sentiment.

Conventional wisdom has it that a gaggle of regional parties will find it difficult to provide cohesive government. The two larger parties have a clear line of command, a leader whose authority is rarely, if ever, questioned by colleagues.

Conversely, collations have been held together by compromise not command. Federal governments in India have yielded more, not less, space to states on matters ranging from the economy to culture. Many regional leaders have held critical ministries like the defence portfolio from 1996 to 2004.

Further, any such formation can only hold office by striking a deal with the Congress. This may well serve as a check on any adventurism. While such a coalition is unlikely to last a full term, it may open up new spaces in politics.

This was the case with VP Singh, who as prime minister (1989-90) redefined policies on positive discrimination in government employment. Strange as it may sound, short-lived ministries can innovate in a chosen area of governance and leave a lasting mark on the polity.

The world's largest democracy may well be at the cusp of major changes. Only its voters know whether the satraps in the regions will have the last laugh.


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