With the presidential election just a month away, a new group of regional parties have emerged to provide an “alternative” to the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party.
How does one look at this event: the cobbling together of an opportunistic alliance? A return to the tattered standard of the “Third Front”? Or something else?
Some facts are clear. Such conglomeration does not represent any ideological coalescence. At best, it is the coming together of narrow interest groups—rich farmers, practitioners of ethnic and linguistic politics, etc. The concept of a third front began as an exercise in anti-Congressism, something that had meaning at one point in the nation’s history, but has expired now.
Yet, even after the death of the idea, the apparition continues to exist. The evolution of the polity in this direction from the last decade of the 20th century has not only been detrimental to economic growth, but has resulted in an even more pernicious development: the allegation that economic reforms are pro-rich.
This has throttled much-needed reforms in agricultural commodity pricing, setting right malfunctioning agricultural markets (both on the input and output sides) and other second-generation reforms. This development alone, apart from the usual friction in the Indian economy, has knocked off at least 1-2% of GDP growth every year since the beginning of this century.
On the face of it, the link between the two developments may not be clear. For example, Chandrababu Naidu is said to have lost elections due to his aggressive economic reforms.
But can one forget the troika of Badal, Chautala and Naidu who systematically lobbied the beleaguered Vajpayee regime for ever higher minimum support prices or wheat and rice, adding a small mountain of producer subsidies in India?
Equally, the ills these parties claim to be fighting in the name of anti-Congressism also plague them. The Chautalas in Haryana, the Thackerays in Maharashtra and Naidu (remember NTR?), among others, have centralized political power in the hands of a family or a small clique.
Typically, a regional party regime is characterized by centralization of power, is rent with insecurity from party rivals to the ruling family and, in most cases, has no economic reason.
This has been a surefooted way to administrative anarchy in these states as exemplified by routine transfers of un-pliable civil servants and police officers and a general deterioration in law and order.
At the same time, one can also question their coming together at this time, when every vote in the presidential electoral college counts. If it is a principled alternative, why don’t these parties press the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to choose a candidate who has grace and the will to resist unreasonabale political demands, instead of focusing on the winnability of the candidate? Elevating a distinguished Indian to that august office is, however, not their objective.
At a time when the 2009 general election is on the horizon and elections in many states due, it is the right time to bargain with the UPA and the NDA for these players. At the moment they hold only one card: their votes in the electoral college. If successful in this round, the experiment may be repeated in 2009. If experience is anything to go by, these sons of the soil are likely to ask for little else but more subsidies.
The Union government is not helping its cause. The “debate” (the Justice M.M. Puncchi Commission, to cite one example) on Centre-state relations may lead to constitutional appeasement, further strengthening such parties. Will 2009 glide us back to the past? The question is open, but what is clear is that as long as groups like this thrive, populism will remain hale and hearty in India.
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