Every five years India renews, if not reproduces, its democratic vows. This is one constant feature against the canvas of unceasing economic, political and social changes. So, is there anything unique about this general election? Can one foretell the consequences that will flow from this altered political landscape?
Both questions can be answered in the affirmative.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Since the first general election in 1952, one can discern three key electoral milestones traversed by the republic. These were in 1967, 1977 and 1989. In a sense they form an arc: 1967 marked the end of the Congress party’s dominance in state politics, 1977 saw the formation of the first non-Congress government at the Centre and 1989 saw the end of single-party rule at the Centre.
The 20-year interval from 1989 to 2009 has been a period of churning: Almost all numerically significant caste groups have been mobilized, if not made use of, in forming and breaking governments. By the early years of this century, the situation had almost come to the level of one caste, one political party. The process was most pronounced in the Hindi heartland states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The reforging of multi-caste alliances by Mayawati and Nitish Kumar shows that caste-based political fission may have run its course.
However, 2009 is the year to reap the bitter fruit of that journey. For the corollary of one caste, one party politics was to elevate opportunism to the apex of Indian politics. While politics is always about truck and barter, this is a qualitatively different phenomenon. Each caste is numerically significant to cross the “nuisance threshold”: It can elect a sufficient number of members of Parliament to be indispensable. But equally, no caste has a course-altering strength. In 1989, this ensured that regional parties were forced to come together and form a coalition. In 2009, it has generated fluidity of a kind not seen before.
In that respect 2009 may go down as a year in which political alliances and coalition governments are formed on only one ground: political expediency. It is not a happy landmark to witness even if it is generated democratically.
This development comes at an inopportune time for India. This unprecedented political fluidity has been generated at a time when the world is in the midst of economic and financial chaos. Ensuring steady economic performance and confronting geopolitical challenges requires leadership that this general election is least likely to generate. Even if the “right” people manage to form the government, they are likely to have insufficient room for manoeuvre to deliver the right results.
The gap between leadership and the requirements of leading India to prosperity has never been so wide since 1947. There have been occasions since independence when leadership was wanting, but never at a time when circumstances were favourable for growth and development.
There is, of course, an alternative interpretation of what is being witnessed. One might say that India is “returning” to the confused coalitions of the mid-1990’s and that 2014 may see a return to a more stable ruling order. Maybe.
In a flat world where the pace of change is almost instantaneous, the lack of leadership has serious opportunity costs for the country. Can leaders who want to domesticate foreign policy (the Left parties) even comprehend the scale of challenges India faces in the global arena? Do regional political parties with regressive agendas (to cite two egregious examples, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party) know what it takes to push ahead with economic growth?
The venality of regional parties has often been commented upon. Here it would be appropriate to highlight the criminal neglect on the part of national parties in not creating an environment in which entities with a political squint can be checked. They did not do anything to prevent the emergence of fly-by-night operators.
These words may sound harsh especially when what is being witnessed is the product of historical events not controlled by one party or another. But to let matters drift when they could have been set right indicates carelessness, neglect and opportunism.
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