By Waled Aadnan:
The results of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections were seen as a move towards a two-party democracy in India. Political commentators opined that the general masses have seen through the short-term cost-benefit approach on the basis of which regional parties plied their trade. What was needed was more autonomy in the hands of the ruling party to frame policies and govern, without being constrained by the push and pulls of coalition dharma. And the electorate seemed willing to grant that autonomy.
But three years is a long time in Indian politics and the tables have turned, not decisively but significantly indeed. While UPA-II wrote the script for the Definitive Encyclopaedia of what-not-to-do-when-in-power, the main opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was faltering to stake claim to the political space left vacant. Instead, a series of assembly elections have seen the two national parties lose ground to their regional counterparts.
The prime mover in this resurgence was the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) led by its popular (and increasingly unpopular) supremo Mamata Banerjee. Not only did she lead the Trinamool to winning 19 seats in the general elections, but thereafter ousted the 34-year old Left Front government from the seat of power at Writers’ Building, Kolkata riding on the back of a series of movements starting from the Singur protests. In Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) and the father-son duo of Mulayam-Akhilesh Yadav have shown that even in the Hindi heartland where politics is defined along caste-religious lines, the development card can play a role. Also, in recent years, we have seen the customary government change between the DMK and the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu. Naveen Patnaik has been elected yet again in Orissa while the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) has defied history to be re-elected to power in Punjab.
These five states and the parties ruling them have changed the dynamics of national politics in the matter of a few years. The focus among them is clearly on the Trinamool. As of now, it is the only of the five mentioned parties which is a member of the union government. Being the second largest constituent of the UPA, it yields considerable powers in lobbying for decisions it needs. As such, it is hardly a surprise that its relationship with the Congress is anything but cosy. Besides, neither is it symbiotic. Whereas the Congress needs the Trinamool’s support to push through major policies through Parliament, the Trinamool has national ambitions to satisfy which, supporting the UPA is just a convenient stepping stone. And after the election results in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, there are no points for guessing what Mamata Banerjee’s next moves are going to be. Dinesh Trivedi hinted as much when he said that “Why only TMC? I feel after yesterday’s results… If I was Samajwadi Party, I would be very happy to have a general election tomorrow so I can increase my tally (of MPs in Parliament) because I have the momentum.”
Whispers of a grand alliance of regional parties have been doing the rounds ever since. Especially after the West Bengal Chief Minister decided to attend the swearing-in ceremony of SAD-led NDA government in Punjab. It was only an indignant and visibly flustered Congress that dissuaded her from doing so, preaching the commandments of coalition dharma. Since then, Mamata has done the honours of sacking Trivedi as Union Railway Minister in a well-orchestrated game of ‘good cop-bad cop’ after he presented a Railway Budget increasing passenger fares for the first time in nine years. This was to add to the other insults to the Congress that have emanated from her which include stalling the Teesta Agreement with Bangladesh, the Jan Lokpal Bill in the Rajya Sabha, as well as the proposal to introduce Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in retail.
The proposal to setup the National Counterterrorism Centre (NCTC) has turned out to be a common ground for the regional parties to oppose the Centre. Various Chief Ministers have called for greater participation of the states in framing the law governing anti-terrorism strategies in the country. Given the Centre’s obstinacy in this regard, what has resulted is a state of stagnation in policy making. In this tug-of war, the country has been left facing an ineffective government. As such, it is interesting to forecast what role the regional parties have to play in the upcoming years.
There are still two years left in the term of the present Lok Sabha and assuming that a situation does not arise where mid-term polls are held, it is difficult to predict how the stocks of different parties rise and fall by 2014. But if the present trend is anything to go by, it is possible that the elusive Third Front in Indian politics will finally see the light of day. However, since no regional party as yet has a support base in more than a couple of states, a government of the regional parties, with probably support from the BJP is most likely to be a house of cards, vulnerable and unstable. The situation is made murkier by the Prime Ministerial ambitions of most of the regional satraps. As such, multi-party rule will inevitably lead to a clash of inflated egos.
Although it is healthy that in a democracy, a multiplicity of ideologies and regional interests are represented in Parliament, the same cannot be said as regards crucial policy decisions. Given the fragmented nature of a Third Front government, there will be issues relating to coordination among different branches of the government. What is of more immediate concern is that most of the regional parties do not have stated policy objectives that go beyond the populist manifestos that fetch votes. It is unclear as to what path the likes of the Trinamool, the JD(U), the SP, SAD, AIADMK, the National Conference (NC) would tread as far as foreign policy or economic liberalisation is concerned. It is highly likely that a fragmented government makes way to policymaking by bureaucrats rather than elected representatives of the people. Besides, the people of West Bengal are finding out that they have replaced the known devil of the CPI(M) with the unknown evil of the AITC. It cannot be entirely ruled out that the same will not be the case if these parties are voted to power at the Centre. Especially given the propensity to big-ticket corruption that leaders of these parties have generally been known to be prone to during their stints as Union Ministers.
To conclude, although the regional parties have gained in support and power due to the misgovernment of the UPA and the general decline of the BJP, there isn’t much precedent of how a coalition of regional parties will govern the country. In the dynamic policy world of 2012 and hereafter, it is imperative that the regional parties formulate an ideology that will help the people decide whether to vote them to power. Else, the gains of the last three years might be squandered come the next Lok Sabha polls. Anyway, as the Congress has reiterated repeatedly in its defence, the LS polls are a different ball game entirely.