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Niche parties taste defeat

Niche parties taste defeat
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First Published: Sat, May 16 2009. 11 17 PM IST

Updated: Sat, May 16 2009. 11 17 PM IST
The Mumbai office of the Professionals Party of India (PPI) downed shutters early on counting day. By Saturday noon, it was locked, with no party workers to mark the party’s first rite of passage—of being tested by the people.
Also See How Urban India Voted (PDF)
Some of them headed to Elphinstone College, where counting was in progress. Mona Kartik Shah, a physician fielded by the party as its Lok Sabha candidate from Mumbai South, dropped by the counting station and returned to her residence. Later, as the figures began to come in, Dr Shah said: “When I campaigned, the responses from people were great. But translating that enthusiasm into votes is another matter. In terms of numbers, we could have done much better.”
Alternatives: Youth For Equality workers campaigning at Lodhi. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
By 1pm, the party workers and supporters of the Congress’ candidate for the seat, Milind Deora, had begun to throng the street at Kala Ghoda, where counting was in progress. Representatives of the Congress and its arch rival, the BJP, filled the rooms, but those of independent candidates and small parties were not identifiable in the crowd.
Mumbai, obviously, had not given in to the rhetoric of “the alternative” that these small parties represented.
It was not just the PPI that came up with dismal figures at the end of counting day. Most other niche urban parties formed by professionals in other parts of the country experienced similar disappointment.
In the months leading up to the election, it had seemed urban India was finally embracing the political process as urban-focused parties sprang up. These parties made their presence felt by highlighting issues relevant to urban voters—such as infrastructure and governance— even as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), and the big regional parties, made new alliances and severed old ones.
The exception: Loksatta party chief Jayaprakash Narayan won a seat in the Andhra Pradesh assembly from Kukatpally. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
The results, however, proved that getting through to Indian voters isn’t easy. “It went against us that the voter turnout was so low this year. We were hoping to galvanize people at least to come out and vote by offering them an alternative,” said Awadhesh Kumar Singh, national vice-president of the Jago Party, which fielded 17 candidates in this general election (11 in Rajasthan, 5 in Bihar and 1 in Mumbai). In a study based on ViziSense, an Internet audience measurement tool, the Jago Party’s website came in fourth among all political parties, with 110,000 unique visitors.
Most parties, excluding Loksatta, a party founded by former civil servant Jayaprakash Narayan that contested 252 assembly seats in Andhra Pradesh, took this election as a test.
For Loksatta, Saturday marked yet another milestone for its charismatic founder. Narayan contested his first election and won.
After defeating the Congress’ Vaddepalli Narasingha Rao in the Kukatpally assembly constituency, in Andhra Pradesh, by a margin of 6,800, Narayan said: “I see Loksatta contesting from many parts of India in the next general election. This has been a great lesson for us. One of them is that people have reached a level of disappointment which is extremely difficult to shake. And the time to do that is now.”
Girish Deshpande of the PPI, too, said the party would rethink its strategies to reach out to people.
The Mumbai unit of Loksatta, which was launched a few months before the general election, did not put up any candidate this year, but voiced its public support for the independent candidate from Mumbai South, Meera Sanyal.
This was the year of the urban warrior. Sanyal, CEO, ABN AMRO Bank; Capt. G.R. Gopinath, the founder of India’s first low-fare carrier Air Deccan; Mallika Sarabhai, a dancer and activist—the urban upper middle-class had the choice of an alternative. But the independents lost to realpolitik.
“You can’t really expect small parties or independent candidates to make any difference to the outcome of the election. The only thing they did this year was to put the spotlight on real issues that our politicians have ignored,” says Kumar Ketkar, editor of the Marathi daily Loksatta. Predicting the dismal performance of niche parties, political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta had earlier told Mint, “The least it takes a political party to win an election is 10 years of being there.” Mayawati, for instance, is not really a new phenomenon in Indian politics.
All quiet: The Mumbai office of PPI at Colaba on Saturday. Ashesh Shah / Mint
In that sense, a party like Youth For Equality was never in the reckoning. Kushal Kant, a physician at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), founder of the Delhi-centred Youth For Equality, said he was not hopeful of victory even as the party campaigned in the Capital. The party contested the New Delhi seat. “When we went out and met people, we got questions as well as doubts. The most common reaction was, ‘You are alone. How will you change things?’. Some bigger parties asked us to support them instead of contesting ourselves. But this was not just about ideology, it was also a question being part of the process of democracy and the responsibility attached to it,” says Kant.
These were some of the reasons another Delhi-based niche party, Bharatiya Rashtravadi Samanata Party (BRSP), founded last year by management guru and best-selling author Shiv Khera, chose not to contest. Col Tajendra Pal Tyagi, president of the party, said it would take them at least five years to build a strong base of voters through social work before they could win elections. Similarly, Lok Paritran, a Chennai-centred party formed by former students of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), stayed away from the general election because it wasn’t ready for it.
The biggest challenge ahead for niche parties is to combine idealism and political will with an ability to convince the electorate that they can bring about change that an alliance led by a 120-year-old party with 258 Lok Sabha seats cannot.
Graphics by Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint
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First Published: Sat, May 16 2009. 11 17 PM IST