New Delhi: A clear verdict in favour of the two national parties in the April-May general election notwithstanding, both the Congress party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have found it difficult to have their way with coalition partners in the first round of state assembly elections since the formation of the 15th Lok Sabha.
The Congress and the BJP together won 322 of the 542 Lok Sabha seats; the last time the two parties crossed 300 seats together was in 1998 when they aggregated 323 seats.
Give and take: Senior NCP leaders (from left) Ajit Pawar, R.R. Patil, Chhagan Bhujbal and Praful Patel during a pre-poll alliance meeting with Congress leaders in Mumbai last week. The two parties have been unable to arrive at a seat-sharing arrangement so far. PTI
Analysts believe that the clout of the regional parties is a manifestation of the fragmented polity and is unlikely to get reversed. They further argue that since the alliances are not based on ideology, the relationship tends to be determined by perceived electoral advantage, which varies with every election.
In fact, in the run-up to the state elections in Haryana and Maharashtra due in October, alliance talks have gone to the wire, and in the case of the BJP, a cessation of its electoral partnership with Indian National Lok Dal (INLD). And with only four days to go for the filing of nominations on 25 September, the Congress and its Maharashtra ally, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), have been unable to arrive at a seat- sharing arrangement.
Lucknow-based political analyst Indra Bhushan Singh terms it as the third stage of politics. “The first was that of national parties, the second was that of regional parties and third is of coalitions between national and regional parties,” he said. “Since it is a relatively new stage, both sides are finding it difficult to find their own space and a foothold in every state, resulting in friction. However, if the national parties stick to national, pan-India causes and issues, they will prevail.”
The fact that the Congress could manage to win only 10 of the 52 seats in the by-elections held in the last four months has only emboldened regional parties to demand a greater seat share.
Historian and author Ramachandra Guha says this is the age of coalition politics as “no single party can represent the aspirations of the people any longer.”
“Since 1989, no single party got majority to come to power due to the fragmentation of the polity,” Guha said. “It is quite interesting that almost all the regional parties today are splinter groups of the Janata Party, which emerged as an alternative to the Congress in 1977 and later became the Janata Dal,” he said.
While a faction (Janata Dal-Secular) led by former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda is a major force in Karnataka, the Janata Dal (United) is the dominating force in Bihar and the Biju Janata Dal rules Orissa. The INLD, the main opposition in Haryana, also originated from the Janata Dal, he pointed out.
While the BJP could come to power only with its regional partners in 1998, the Congress, the oldest political party in India, took charge of a coalition at the Centre for the first time in 2004. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which was re-elected in May, currently has 11 partners and seven outside supporters.
In the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, the Congress could not come to any agreement with some of its crucial UPA allies such as Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party (SP) and Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), resulting in it going alone in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The RJD, SP and LJP, meanwhile, fought the elections together as a so-called fourth front and fared badly, unlike the Congress.
Even with the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, the Congress managed to come to a seat-sharing agreement only at the last minute.
Political observers say that the allies do not appear to be intimidated by the performance of the two national parties in the general election. “As for the Congress, its allies still believe that the party did so well in the recent elections only because of the lack of a solid alternative, and that they still have a chance of surviving on their own terms if they do well electorally,” Singh said. “Hence, they tend to try and not allow the bigger party to dictate terms.”
Guha added that “historical reasons for the Congress—it has been the dominant force since Independence—and the ideological reasons for the BJP form hurdles for both the parties in forming and running formidable coalitions.”
However, Saibal Gupta, Patna-based development and political analyst, attributed this to the changing nature of coalition politics. Pointing out that the coalition politics in India was originally based on “some programmatic formula” and had “ideological cohesions”, he said: “However, now ideology has completely been eclipsed at both the national and provincial levels and hence, no programmatic strategy exists any more.”
“Instead, now sibling-centric politics has become institutionalized and coalitions are now based on mutual advantages and benefits, with everyone trying to push their own interest,” Gupta said. “In such a scenario, negotiations become more difficult since nobody is willing to concede any space.”