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Decline of India's political leviathans

Political party flags being sold in India
Regional forces may hold sway over the two main parties' fortunes

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

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

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

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.

Regional players... now hope to move from sharing power to shaping the federal government

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.

LK Advani
The BJP has failed to accommodate regional sentiment

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.

CHANGING FORTUNES
A supporter of Congress party with the party poster containing Sonia Gandhi's picture
Seats won by Congress in 1984 elections: 404. In 2004: 145
Seats won by BJP in 1984 elections: 2. In 2004: 138
Seats won by state and regional parties in 1991 elections: 51. In 2004: 154

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.

Mahesh Rangarajan is a leading historian. He teaches at Delhi University.


Here is a selection of your comments.

Mahesh Rangarajan provides an excellent preview of the upcoming elections. While politics in India may be riddled with corruption and nepotism, the Indian constitution has done a remarkable job of bringing political power to the masses. In this sense, democracy in India continues to be an evolving success. However, the political structures are very inefficient, political debate is often unproductive, and the driving forces of the political parties are communal and divisive - rather than good governance for national progress. The ideal governments in India, of course, would marry the technocratic success of modern Indian industry with the political success of its representative democracy. One can only hope that this isn't too far off into the future.
Shantanu Rao, USA

This is excellent analysis of the prevalent political situation. i would like to add that formation of the Mayavati led front is much more formidable combination because of its edge in states with 275 seats in the Lower House. The Congress had won 64 of these while the BJP had won 38. Both are likely to lose nearly thirty seats. The strength of two national parties that stands at 283 in the outgoing House may not cross 225 in the 15th House. That will be invitation to political instability at the time when India needs to take hard and harsh economic decisions to limp out of the trauma of economic slow down. But the combination that would emerge would attend to public actions rather than hitch the wagon to global market forces. That is not a very healthy trend.
Sanghvi Vijay, India

In the opening lines you have said Congress and Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. If you were an unbiased writer you would have not included Hindu nationalist and just stuck to the party name. But it is not the case. The English speaking media has a bias and always labels BJP as communal and saffron party. Is it a crime to be a Hindu in India? Why are Hindus always at the receiving end? Why not the Congress as a green party in every sense , of greed and all vices that has been the cause of the misfortune of this country. Or call the communists as Red?
Rasita, India

Mahesh Rangarajan has not commented on the strength of regional parties who form a major part of the coalition govt. Indian regional parties have been able to play a vital role in forming central government. But still the major member of the coalition government will be only Congress or the BJP. It has been demonstrated in the past that the effective campaigning and the timing of the election play a vital role in influencing the minds of the voters in India. Indian voters are very matured and, therefore, clear verdict will be spelt out when the election date is closing. I strongly feel that while the congress may get majority in the south, it will be BJP in the north India. It has been very clearly demonstrated that BJP has been able to capture power in many states like Karnataka in the South where it had never ruled. People in Tamil Nadu prefer BJP for central government for their long time planning like golden quadrilateral(road sector).
Gopalan Subramanian, India !

Somehow I feel that for greater stability and for quick decision making on important issues there needs to be a system where we have a single party at the helm in India. The regional parties hold sway and keep the decision making hostage to their own whims...the Indo-US nuclear deal was delayed and stomped over by the communists who are allies in the present ruling coalition led by the Congress Party. In another case, the withdrawal of support from one of the allies AIADMK led to the untimely fall of the BJP party led coalition, causing unnecessary instability and draining the tax-payer's money in another election. Regional parties are not a solution to address regional concerns, they can and they should be done by elected representatives from those regions. Coalition politics cannot be hailed as a democratic triumph especially not when the need of the hour is quick decision making, stability, and financial prudence. I am personally appalled by the idea of coalition politics and the supporters of this system should realize that this is a misuse of democracy. those who say that coalition politics gives voices to the regional concerns and keeps the ruling party in check, they will agree with me, that concerns can be addressed by elected representatives from that region, and ruling party is kept in check by the party in opposition, there is no need for another internal opposition.
Pulkit Nigam, USA

I fear that the rise of regional parties will eventually morph them into ethno-national parties. That is, parties representing the interests of various states will eventually begin to see themselves as separate nations, and may eventually call for independence. Tamil Nadu's dominant regional parties already had a history of calling for independence - I fear that other parties may begin to endorse the interests of their ethnic groups over the interests of India as a whole. It is a short path from regionalism to nationalism to separatism.
Anil, USA

The weakening of the national parties in India is symptomatic of inability of strong central power to address regional and local issues. Unfortunately the regional parties that fill the vacuum are also narrow in vision and scope. They tend to exploit the caste system or religion based sentiments. In a way there is poetic justice in all this-the people of India having lacked credible party that can govern from the centre with adequate sensitivity to the regional issues and balance it prudently against central power, has voted itself into era of weak central government that is always at the mercy of regional power coalitions. This is unlikely to change in near future.
Harjot Kahlon, USA

A narrative article with a gist of political players and their approaches to reach the pinnacle of power. However, this article fails to analyse the decline of main parties as it set out to do in first place. I suspect short sighted policies of these parties like allying with regional or smaller parties have cost them dearly. I wish the electorate votes for a stable government as the country cannot afford a hung parliament and political horse trading
Laxman Karajgikar, UK

While agreeing to his ability to analyse the post election scenario in India, the main driving force in most parties is to share power some how. The anti defection law makes a party to stay in the coalition. We must not take Western democratic countries as yardsticks to evaluate India. Many European countries have successful coalition governments. The last BJP led coalition and the current UPA govt performance is reasonably good. Think of Indian politics from Indian point of view is my humble suggestion. Mind you a billion odd population with a large percentage of eligible voters use electronic machine where more than 40% are illiterate and exercise their franchise under tremendous pressure of all sorts of bad and good influences.
Omkarnath Kamalapurkar, India

I cannot agree more to the author. This would really going to be a very challenging time for India. With regional parties looking into their own narrow interests, could well let down India as a nation. These are the testing times for India on the front of national security (terrorism), integrity(naxalites) and now the economic slowdown. In a situation like this, India requires a stable government with a authoritative leader. I hope that either BJP or congress would be able to form the government. This is the best that India can hope for.
Abhishek Jain, India

Indian Politicians, like in most places in the world are too eager for short term gain at any cost. They do not cultivate statesmanship, practice respect for law and order, groom younger and educated leaders and essentially cultivate long range plan which is good for the nation and yet getaway with it. Strong regional power is not the problem but economically free and astute electorate is the only answer. Hungry and uninformed people can be easily manipulated. We need strong and free press only who can cultivate astute electorate.
Somes Guha, USA

We Indians are yet too ignorant about our needs as citizen of India. We collectively inculcate in our mind that, We as a society should have common aspiration to transform our selves in a homogeneous group, giving priority to national interest rather than our regional interest. We require leaders who know needs of Nation and who will give prominence to national cause. The leader who can project himself as a national leader and command respect of society through his thoughts and action through out the India. A leader who gives priority to national integration and not to regional separatism. Who is a firm believer in politics for national cause and not for personal cause. We ourselves through public forums and groups must make the system change in desired direction and help to build a strong democratic society make the world look at us with respect.
Shirish Madhukar Nawathe, India

Great article and nice to see democracy at work.
Mohan, USA

I believe a two-party system like that in US is better for India than a patchwork of regional parties who can only form a government based on compromises resulting in indecisive coalitions and frequent general elections, the cost of which is ultimately borne by the public. The existence of two major parties was closest to an absolute two-party system. Their disintegration is likely to lead to further instability and chaos.
Irfan Alvi, USA

Congress problems with losing votes actually began in the mid-1980's when it overturned the Shah Bano Maintenance Court judgement of India's Supreme Court, an act that eventually led to the Babri Mosque dispute. It was accused (and still is) of openly favouring Muslims over the Majority Hindu community. The BJP has a problem in that its vision of a Nationalistic India does not appeal to much of Lower Caste Hindus, who see it (rightly or wrongly) as dominated by the Upper Castes. Its Agenda also alienates much of the non-Hindi parts of the Country. Only in Karnataka does it have a foothold outside North and West India. I foresee another fractured mandate.
S Kumar, London, UK

It is now high time India should have a relook to its constitution as well as election policy in the light of new challenges of 21st Century. Mere economic growth is meaningless when Human Development Index for India is worse than Sub-Saharan Countries. India must learn from the constitutional provisions and election policy from USA & Germany in particular. Indian youth are directionless, politicians are power Hungary & industrialists are selfish, poor & middle class in rural & urban are helpless. Population, corruption & Reservation have taken front seats.
Dr Amrit Patel, USA

I disagree with many of your comments. You have joined with foreign journalists in branding BJP as the Hindu nationalist party. It is more secular than Congress, which is a feudal party. You have repeated at many places what common people already know very well. You should write something new instead of repeating what others have written or painted earlier. In the same stroke, you should brand the conservatives of UK, Germany, USA, Ireland, and many other countries where Christians are in majority as Christian nationalist parties.
Viswanathan, USA

Before independence, India had only one party - the Indian National Congress, a coalition of myriad parties and interest groups brought together by the overriding desire to get the British out. After independence, Mahatma Gandhi's advice to dissolve the Congress and let new parties be formed was rejected, but Congress under Nehru was a coalition. Eventually, conflicting interests and electoral politics led to the breakup of Congress into multiple parties. The so-called national parties, Congress and BJP, cannot win a municipal ward in large swathes of the country; the Communists are confined to two small pockets, smaller than some so-called regional parties. Since the eighties, coalitions rule at the federal level and in many states. One salutary feature is that all the parties, with the exception of the Communists, share a common foreign and economic policy. In the fifties and sixties, the press and the pundits in India and abroad, complained against one party rule and the lack of a two party system. Now they complain about multi-party coalitions. In course of time, it is probable that two loose coalitions, like Democrats and Republicans in the U.S., would emerge. Because of the parliamentary system, where party members cannot cross-vote (as in the U.S. Congress) on specific issues, Indian coalitions often split and reunite in various combinations. These would be resolved in an entirely Indian fashion over the next few decades.
Thiruvengadam Ramakrishnan, U.S.A.

I believe the Congress party would emerge as the largest Party in the Lok Sabha.
Nazim Emamali, Trinidad

Thank you for an excellent analysis. Yes, both Congress and BJP are losing their appeal to the advantage of the regional/state parties. But, one should not be surprised if the Third Front crumbles after the election and its constituents behave like free moving particles ready to form any combination provided they get their share of the cake.
KP Fabian, India

I'm very much hopeful that Congress lead coalition will form new govt because newly formed third front will support congress lead coalition end of the election. My best wishes to UPA Front.
Md Hafizur Rahman Azad, Bangladesh

Indians have almost lost faith with the political parties. Dynastic ambition, corruption, hero worship, fundamentalism has withered the political parties. .Educated and urban folks are shy to vote. Voting is dominated by the rural and slum folks who are given money, saris, liquor and fake promises to induce their vote in their favour. But there no other alternative for the survival of the political system in these countries. Compulsory voting and stringent qualification for the parliament and legislative members can bring some change in the political culture. Is it possible? Only a cultural revolution can save the future democracy. Mass media must initiate the revolution.
Samson Aseervatam, India

Mahesh's analysis of the Indian political situation is quite accurate and this article is a portrayal of hope in a dynamic and evolving polity. It is quite encouraging to see that he can make sense of what I would have seen as a democratic process that successfully generates dysfunctional governments as the predictable result. Thinking forward, I feel that the Indians have given a clear indication that regional sentiments are more important to them than national issues. A decentralised governance where the states have most of the power is what the people want. In such a situation it is meaningless to talk about national parties. This is already true in many states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal where the two national parties are almost nonexistent. Over the years the prelude and the exercise of franchise in the general election has lost its charm. What has emerged as a high political drama is the shambolic state the political system is put into after the election results are announced. The greed to grab power permeates through everyone who is fortunate to win a seat in the parliament. In this mad rush any combination of leftist, rightist or central parties is a possibility. Being aware of this, the regional parties keep their options open and never rule out a post election alliance with whichever party is in a position to form a government. It is therefore not surprising that these alliances of convenience are weak, indecisive and fragile in a country which needs bold decisions to eradicate illiteracy and poverty. Unfortunately, in the present system there is no place for visionaries and is a perfect breeding ground for corrupt politicians.
Anirban Sarkar, United Kingdom

While I see a rise of local and regional parties as an expression of democracy, I also see the trend as negative given the ability of these parties to hold a nation to ransom at the expense of the nation. I further think that the major parties have encouraged this move given their ability to divide and rule. Politics based on region, caste and religious sentiments have never made good national policies.
Murli, UK

It is most unfortunate and pity that two main national parties are loosing their ground. There needs to be an electoral reform which will stipulate that regional parties can only participate in state assembly election. In order to marginalize these small and regional parties, BJP and Congress should reach some kind of tactical understanding where by either Congress or BJP depending upon number of seats they win, will form a Government and the other will ensure that the Government is not pulled down. This will eliminate the smaller parties at some stage.
Keshav Sridhar, India

The article is proof of current crisis in Indian politics. There is no party with proper policy or structure.The regionalism has been a issue in India which has been sidelined for long .The late IT service sector based boom is also coming to an end signalling more chaos. This election will one step closer to end of Indian Tiger not only in terms of economics but in terms of social inequality, quality of India education system and hypocritical policies of regional and central governments and also the masses who have failed to deliver lessons to the most corrupt political system in the world.
Rabinder Henry, India

The regional parties who have ruled southern India have made them more developed in every aspect be it education, family planning, over all development of the region and the employment opportunities. It is a wrong notion that they are going for divisive politics, though this could be the case with the states of the Hindi belt, where elections are fought on the caste lines but that isn't the case in southern India. Though here parties are formed on linguistic basis and they really performing well with regard to serving the people and governing the state. By electing the regional satraps instead of the national parties the people of south India are doing a great job in ensuring better governance in their respective states and this does not be understood that they would like to go for independence, they are for united India but with no clear mandate to the so called national parties which are more interested to increase their influence in the state where they do not have presence rather than on holding on the states which had gave them the power to rule. I strongly suggest that at least south India is better ruled by the regional parties than the national level parties
Raj, India

The 2009 lok sabha elections lacks any attractions. The mandate will definitely be fragmented. The congress party will emerge as the single largest party. The party is going to increase its tally by 25- 35 seats. The government is going to be formed by the congress led alliance (UPA). The smaller partners will play good bargain politics before lending support to the congress party. The next five years is going to be very important for the country because of global financial crisis and increased volatile situation in South Asia. The past government has done well in most of the areas except a few areas like controlling of illegal migrants who are becoming a security threat and also sucking up the precious resources. The poorest of the poor, the dalits and tribals are being left out as always. Muslims and Christians are feeling more safe under the congress led government.
Krishnendu Das, India

I only wish this spirit of democracy that our big neighbour India has kept alive for more than half a century would spill over to others in South Asia. Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and my own Bangladesh have much to learn from India from its strict observance to democratic ideals despite being perhaps the most difficult nation on earth to rule. Never have we ever heard the army in India pondering when would they assume power for "greater good". Despite India's many faults, from denying Kashmiris, Assamese and numerous others from right of self-determination, and its huge mass of poor from the benefit of its continues economic growth, by and large it remained optimistic with the prospect of Democracy. Whilst India has many things to learn from her neighbours, for example rural development from Bangladesh and sustained economic growth from Sri Lanka, India's neighbours, has one great thing to learn from her. That is the venerable word, democracy, which this subcontinent practised for many years, before the Europeans idolised and institutionalised it.
A Bangladeshi, UK

Speaking to my cousin in India about the upcoming election, I said "Don't vote BJP or I'll smack you". His reply, "What should I do then? Ineffectual Congress? United Front?" I think his words really summed up, as this article did, the political crisis in India. A 'vote for nobody' attitude will eventually paralyse India's democratic system. A change is needed.
Trisha, Sydney, Australia

I also agree that a two party system will provide for a more stable and quick decision making people at the centre but at the same time there should be a system in place where people can reject a candidate who stands for election if they find him/her not to there liking or eligible. Otherwise a three party system would be more appropriate.
Saurabh Shrivastava, India



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