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The elections and the uncertain future

Thursday 16 April 2009, by Sumantra Bose

An epic month-long election takes place against a background of both regional and global tests to India’s polity, says Sumantra Bose.

India’s politics is an alphabet-soup that is certain to bewilder the uninitiated.

As the world’s largest democracy heads into its fifteenth general election since independence in 1947, Uttar Pradesh - the country’s most populous state, a vast sprawl across north India’s Gangetic plain - is being contested between three parties whose acronyms are SP, BSP, and BJP.

In the neighbouring state of Bihar, the chief contenders are the RJD, LJP, and the JD (U) - the last not to be confused with the JD (S), which is active in the southern state of Karnataka.

In the deep-south state of Tamil Nadu, the major parties are the DMK and the AIADMK, with the PMK, the MDMK and the DMDK also in the fray.

The alphabet-soup illustrates the striking transformation of India’s politics over the past two decades. The defining feature of that transformation is what political scientists call "party proliferation".

The turning-point came in November 1989, in India’s ninth general election. That election signalled the end of the hegemony of the Congress Party - the colossus of Indian politics for four decades since independence and the engine of the independence movement for three decades prior to 1947.

The Congress’s share of the Lok Sabha ("House of the People") - the directly elected chamber of parliament - plummeted from the 415 (of 543) seats won by the party in December 1984 to 197 seats in November 1989.

This was not a "blip", but a reflection of powerful, long-term trends at work in Indian society and politics. The era of single-party dominance had come to an end.

A behemoth’s decline

Two factors explain the Congress behemoth’s decline. First, by the end of the 1980s key social groups had lost faith, for varying reasons, in the Congress’s ability to represent their interests and advance their aspirations. Second, the party’s once-formidable organisation gradually withered away in key states.

The organisational weakening was due above all to the concentration and personalisation of power in the hands of Indira Gandhi, the party’s supreme leader during the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s. Indira Gandhi did not tolerate popular party leaders in the states, who might challenge her authority.

In Uttar Pradesh (UP), the traditional Congress base had three major constituents: upper-caste Hindus (Brahmins and Thakurs), the lowest-caste Hindus ("Dalits", literally meaning "the oppressed"), and Muslims, who are 18% of the state’s population.

In the early 1990s, the upper-caste Hindus of UP switched allegiance to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party ("Indian People’s Party", BJP). The Dalits gravitated towards the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), a party established by Dalit activists in the mid-1980s. Most Muslims went for the Samajwadi Party ("Socialist Party", SP) which, like the BSP, has a mass base only in UP.

The Congress’s voting base collapsed. And bereft of any leaders of stature in the vast state who could lead a campaign to reclaim and renew the party’s base, the Congress was cut adrift in UP, which has about 190 million people and eighty of the Lok Sabha’s 543 electoral districts.

The Congress has governed India at the head of a coalition government for the past five years. But in the general election of May 2004, the party won just 145 seats in the Lok Sabha.

The Congress’s tally of 197 in the lost watershed election of 1989 looks impressive in comparison. And a score of 197 when the outcome of the present election to the Lok Sabha is declared on 16 May would thrill the party’s leaders.

But such a prospect is out of reach, the stuff of fantasy rather than realpolitik.

India’s politics has been transformed since 1989 by the relentless rise of "regional" parties across the country. The regional parties represent a variety of caste, sub-caste, ethnic and linguistic groups (and parts thereof). They have one attribute in common - almost all have a mass base in only one of the twenty-eight states that comprise the Indian Union.

During the first half of the 1990s, it seemed that the BJP might replace the Congress as the linchpin of Indian politics. But the BJP’s appeal to the 80% of Indians who are classified as "Hindu" to unite behind it turned out to be gravely unrealistic in the face of the sheer diversity and multiple fracture-lines of Indian - and "Hindu" - society.

In the 2004 election, regional parties won almost half of the Lok Sabha’s 543 constituencies. The Congress and the BJP won 283 seats in all, just over half -145 and 138, respectively - but many of these were due to alliances struck by both parties with regional parties influential in various states.

A slow unravelling

India has seen a decade of relative political stability between 1999 and 2009. Unwieldy coalition governments in New Delhi headed by the BJP (1999 to 2004) and Congress (2004 to 2009) have managed to survive their full terms.

But the election of 2009 could be a game-changing event.

The Congress-led ruling coalition, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), has substantially unravelled in the run-up to the polls, as key regional allies have deserted the Congress. Further unravelling may be on the cards after 16 May. The BJP-led opposition coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), also rocked by the departure last month of one longstanding regional ally, is barely holding together, with further unraveling plausible in the post-poll scenario.

This has prompted the formation of a nascent "third front" consisting of some regional parties, intent on fishing in troubled waters. The front’s mastermind is India’s main communist party, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), whose base is confined to one large state (West Bengal), one middle-sized state (Kerala) and one tiny state (Tripura).

The communists supported the Congress-led coalition government from 2004 until July 2008, when they withdrew support in protest against the government’s decision to conclude an agreement with the United States on civil-nuclear cooperation.

The floundering Congress and BJP have largely themselves to blame for their predicament.

The Congress, India’s grand old party, is a family firm controlled by the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi - who is the granddaughter-in-law, daughter-in-law and widow of past Congress prime ministers - and her son Rahul Gandhi.

The revival of the dynastic tradition does provide a symbolic focus of unity to a party that has been reduced to a pale shadow of what it was until twenty years ago.

But neo-royalism and a top-down approach is inadequate - and outdated - in an India defined by the mobilisation of a plethora of identity and interest groups via regional parties and the diffusion of real power from New Delhi to the states.

The era in which the Congress bestrode India from New Delhi, and the nation’s politics was dominated by the charismatic personalities of Jawaharlal Nehru (prime minister from 1947 to 1964) and his daughter Indira Gandhi (prime minister from 1966 to 1977 and 1980 to 1984), is now history.

The BJP is a party torn between ideological dogmatism and the social and political complexity of India in the early 21st century.

An intelligent strategy would have positioned the BJP as a responsible and reform-oriented right-of-centre party, on the lines of the post-1945 "Christian Democratic" parties of Europe.

But the BJP has proven unable to fully effect such a transition. It continues to harbor and pander to the groups of sectarian extremists who are part of the broader parivar ("family") of the Hindu nationalist movement. For example, in the eastern state of Orissa, the party’s list of candidates includes persons implicated in violence against minority Christians during 2008.

The party’s prime-ministerial candidate, the octogenarian politician Lal Krishna Advani, is identified with the hardline wing of the Hindu nationalist movement and does not have the "moderate" reputation of Atal Behari Vajpayee, the BJP/NDA prime minister from 1998 to 2004.

A polity’s challenge

The fragmentation of India’s political landscape is neither unnatural nor necessarily a bad thing. If India’s society is defined by diversity, why should its political map be any different?

The problem is that most of the regional satraps (barons and baronesses) who call the shots in the devolved framework of political power in India are notorious for poor governance and venality. There are encouraging exceptions such as Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar, and Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister of Orissa, but they are as yet in the minority.

Most of India’s new elite of regional politicians also have a promiscuous record of switching between the Congress, BJP, and "third front" experiments. This means that government formation post-16 May is likely to prove complicated, and the tenure of the next Lok Sabha may be short-lived.

Beyond the uncertainty and intrigues sure to intensify next month, India’s vibrant and dynamic democracy, which is justly lauded in the developing and developed world alike, would do its citizens a service by attending to certain "blind spots."

The regionalisation of India’s politics post-1989 has enhanced the representative character of India’s democracy in important ways. It has, in particular, enabled the political enfranchisement of middle and lower-caste Hindu groups across a vast swathe of northern India.

But what about the nation’s women, whose representation in the Lok Sabha is under 10% even after fourteen general elections? The high-profile presence of a handful of powerful women politicians does not compensate for this lag.

A proposal to reserve a third of the Lok Sabha’s seats - and the same proportion in the state legislatures - for women members has been under consideration for over a decade. This proposal has significant drawbacks, and a much better option would be to instead make it mandatory for the nation’s rainbow spectrum of political parties to nominate a minimum of one-third women on their candidate lists.

Over the past two decades India has made much progress, against considerable odds, in its developmental goals. And it is unmistakably a rising power in the global community of the early 21st century. India’s polity must rise to the challenge of making that promise a reality.

Sumantra Bose is professor of international and comparative politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). His books include Bosnia after Dayton: Nationalist Partition and International Intervention (Oxford University Press, 2002), Kashmir: Roots of Conflict, Paths to Peace (Harvard University Press, 2003) and Contested Lands: Israel-Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, Cyprus, and Sri Lanka (Harvard University Press, 2007)

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