New Delhi: What looks set to be one of India’s longest and hardest fought election seasons ever threatens to further erode the power are of its two political heavyweights and deepen a crisis in policymaking.
Voters will pick a Central government within a year, while a string of state ballots kicks off on Saturday with sharply rising food prices featuring heavily in campaigning.
Keenly watched: Uttar Pradesh chief minister and Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati. Her party, which, analysts say, is upsetting all equations, could play kingmaker to the next government at the Centre.
But for the ruling Congress, whose economic reforms and foreign policy have been tripped up by weak leadership and irate allies, and a lacklustre main opposition, the growing clout of smaller rivals is also causing sleepless nights, analysts say.
For the Congress, the situation is especially uncomfortable as it battles inflation at three-year highs and crosses its fingers that good monsoon rains will keep a stagnant farm sector, which provides jobs for half the workforce, ticking over. “They are dancing on a volcano,” said political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan of the predicament facing the government, a coalition of around a dozen parties.
The economy has buzzed along at growth rates of around 8% a year, but commentator Prem Shankar Jha says the government’s “inner dissensions” have forced it to all but give up on taking decisions.
February’s feel-good budget peppered with tax cuts and bailouts for indebted farmers is fading from memory, while efforts to improve ties with neighbours Pakistan and China have stumbled.
“Bureaucratic incoherence and the lack of political courage have repeatedly tripped up the...government. Like a deer stuck in the headlights, it seems thoroughly paralysed,” foreign affairs analyst C. Raja Mohan wrote in the Indian Express daily.
Its chief rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has problems of its own as it rallies around the octogenarian L.K. Advani and remains unable to agree on how to manage the transition to a younger generation or even what it stands for.
Analysts say that in many of the states where it is strong it may have peaked at the last general election in 2004.
Waiting in the wings is a newly energized party, which essentially espouses the cause of the Dalits — members of the caste at the bottom of the Indian society. It may play kingmaker to the next government at the Centre, and a host of other regional and caste-based groups eyeing a share of the spoils of power.
“The BJP’s weakness and the Congress’ non-performance is the moment of opportunity for others,” said Rangarajan.
That’s especially the case for Mayawati, perhaps India’s most keenly watched politician. Last year, her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) captured power in Uttar Pradesh, home to 170 million people and one-seventh of all national lawmakers, by taking a pro-poor mantra beyond a core base of Dalits.
While tainted by corruption allegations from the past, Mayawati’s party rattled opponents with its landslide win, grass-roots activism and popular rallies in other states.
“This is a party which is upsetting all the equations,” said Rangarajan.
By comparison, he added, “The Congress is like a banyan tree. The roots come down from the top, but they are not getting anchored in the soil.”
The Congress, in the shape of Rahul Gandhi, son of party boss Sonia Gandhi, is fighting back, aggressively working villages at the centre of Mayawati’s empire, who in a calculated outburst accused Rahul Gandhi of washing with a “special soap” after dining with Dalits.
“This offensive of Rahul Gandhi is intended not only to challenge Mayawati in her bastion, but also checkmate the BSP from cutting into the Congress vote in other states,” Rangarajan said.
At the same time, a collection of regional and caste-based parties are circling each other warily and talking of a “Third Front” alternative to the Congress and the BJP, some of their leaders occasionally flashing smiles at one of the Big 2.
The need to make room for an ever-growing number of voices around the cabinet table has undermined democracy and collective responsibility in government, complicating policymaking as small outfits exercise disproportionate influence, analysts say.
“Regional parties...have grown used to the idea of treating the government in New Delhi as a sum of independently run lucrative parking lots,” wrote Indian Express columnist Saubhik Chakrabarti.
Communist parties, whose on-off support for the government has left its main diplomatic achievement—a nuclear energy deal with Washington—all but dead, are inching closer to the third bloc with joint protests over rising prices. The grouping lacks a common platform and is unlikely to be able to cobble together enough support to form a government, but its presence will impact the Big 2.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh used a high-profile speech to businessmen last week to express his hope that India can move forward despite the “limitations imposed by fractured mandates”.
For the Congress and the BJP remain top dogs, but can only wag their tails so much once in power, said Rangarajan.