Indian elections: a three-horse race or free-for-all?

23 February 2009

As India’s general election approaches, political parties are staking out their respective spaces and struggling to build the right alliances. As of now, none of the three still-evolving rival blocs—the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance, and the as-yet-emerging Third Front—has established a decisive lead. Whether India will witness a three-horse race or a free-for-all leading to a badly hung Parliament is still an open question.

However, some trends are visible.

As India’s general election approaches, political parties are staking out their respective spaces and struggling to build the right alliances. As of now, none of the three still-evolving rival blocs—the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance, and the as-yet-emerging Third Front—has established a decisive lead. Whether India will witness a three-horse race or a free-for-all leading to a badly hung Parliament is still an open question.

However, some trends are visible. The UPA isn’t going into the election as a national-level alliance. The Congress will go it alone but will have different seat-sharing arrangements at the state level. It will project a strong all-India profile. The BJP’s strategy is to fight 28 different elections in 28 states, using varying platforms and appeals. And the Third Front is still to crystallise nationally although non-Congress-non-BJP combinations are emerging in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

Going by acting Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s interim budget, the Congress appears confused about what it wants. Barring an 86 percent increase in the budget for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), it has announced no major pro-poor measures. Allocations to school education and rural health have hardly risen. The NREGA raise to Rs30,000 crore is attributable not to its intensification, but to its extension to all 597 rural districts The allocation pales into insignificance beside the Rs36,000 crore (34 percent) increase in military spending. Counting defence pensions, the increase works out to an obscene Rs40,000-crore ($8 billion). Much of this for buying new weapons, many of them irrelevant to any notion of adequate defence, but important to power projection.

This military spending splurge cannot be justified as a response to the Mumbai attacks. You don’t need long-range missiles, nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers or amphibian craft to counter terrorism. The increase is related to the Congress’s anxiety to counter the BJP’s charge that it’s “soft” on terrorism and Pakistan. Will the Congress gain by appropriating the BJP’s chauvinist platform? In the past, it has always lost both credibility and votes by doing so.

At any rate, it has squandered an opportunity to give a big stimulus to the economy while creating employment and incomes for the poor through a big public works programme with labour-intensive mass housing, and construction of village roads and school buildings, etc. If the Congress has failed to generate an imaginative platform which will attract mass votes, the UPA is even worse placed. In 2004, it performed spectacularly in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Delhi, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, winning 129 of the 156 Lok Sabha contests in these. Its performance was respectable in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Assam and Jammu and Kashmir. It’s improbable that the UPA can repeat this. In Tamil Nadu, its main ally, the DMK, faces anti-incumbency while the rival AIADMK is on the upswing. In Andhra, it faces a challenge from both the TDP-Left-Telengana Rashtra Samiti alliance and actor Chiranjeevi’s new party. In Bihar, Lalu Prasad is likely to lose ground to Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United). In Gujarat, the UPA is unlikely to retain 12 of 26 seats. The UPA can make up these losses in small states like Kerala and Orissa and to some extent in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, J &K, and Karnataka. But these are unlikely to be bulk gains, of the kind that Uttar Pradesh can deliver. That’s where the Congress has a shaky alliance with the Samajwadi Party. If this alliance works, and can present a cohesive platform which attracts a broad coalition of social forces, it could conceivably win 50 of UP’s 80 seats.

But the alliance isn’t quite working and may even collapse. The SP is loath to concede more than 15 seats to the Congress, which it won’t accept. Worse, there’s bad blood between them because of the revival of a corruption case against SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, which the party blames on the Congress. The SP has aligned itself with former BJP Chief Minister Kalyan Singh although he was deeply involved in the conspiracy to demolish the Babri mosque.

Meanwhile, Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress is exploring other options, including an arrangement with the SP, and an understanding under which the Shiv Sena would support his candidature as Prime Minister. Pawar, in some ways an unguided missile, is in a hurry to become Prime Minister—through convoluted alliances with others, including Jayalalithaa and with regional parties that have been with the NDA. Pawar is likely to drift away from the UPA if the Congress does not accommodate his demands in Maharashtra, to which the NCP’s base is largely confined. In the past, he has supported Shiv Sena-BJP candidates and has a good equation with both the Thackerays.

Given this, the UPA’s seat tally is unlikely to go beyond 200-230 (midpoint, 272) even if the Congress’s alliance with the SP works out, and its allies recoup their losses. This still won’t be enough to form government—unlike in 2004, when it had the 62 Left MPs’ support.

The NDA is poorly placed to gain from this. The BJP is confident of winning only in Gujarat, and probably Madhya Pradesh. It’s in decline in the Western and Central states, barring Gujarat, which account for 40 percent-plus of all its Lok Sabha MPs. The BJP has no positive programme with a broad appeal. Its “nation-in-danger-from-terrorism-Muslims-Pakistan” platform isn’t selling. Nor does it have policies or a vision that will win support outside the upper-caste upper-class urban elite. From 24 parties, the NDA is now down to just 7, of whom only the JD(U), Akali Dal and Biju Janata Dal matter. The rest are too small. Nitish Kumar has always been uneasy about the BJP’s Hindu-communal orientation. He distanced himself from it on the Hindutva terror network and on the anti-terrorist laws. Even if the BJP improves its own score of 138 seats, the NDA’s tally is unlikely to cross the 200-seat mark

That leaves the Bahujan Samaj Party, which is fighting the elections on its own, and the embryo of a Third Front. Despite its impressive record of gaining votes and seats in election after election, the BSP cannot reproduce the UP model in other states. UP is unique in having the highest proportion of upper castes in the population (over 20 percent), and Dalits (17 percent), besides Muslims (19 percent). In UP, the BSP coalesced the first two groups into a bloc and got some support from the third. This cannot happen in other states because the Dalits aren’t numerous, nor are the upper castes open to such alliances. It’d be a surprise if the BSP’s national tally crosses 45 to 50. The Third Front is unlikely to be able to make a bid for power even assuming it crystallises properly. The Left parties will probably suffer erosion in West Bengal and Kerala, and less severely in Tamil Nadu and Andhra. The Front can’t attract many regional parties given that some of them are already aligned with the Congress or the BJP.

Clearly, India will have to await a radical restructuring of party politics—and its closer alignment with the people’s real needs, and with progressive social movements—before it has lesser fragmentation.

Praful Bidwai, a fellow of the Transnational Institute, is a senior Indian journalist, political activist and widely published commentator. He is a co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament.

About the authors

Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a political columnist, social science researcher, and activist on issues of human rights, the environment, global justice and peace. He currently holds the Durgabai Deshmukh Chair in Social Development, Equity and Human Security at the Council for Social Development, Delhi, affiliated to the Indian Council for Social Science Research. 

A former Senior Editor of The Times of India, Bidwai is one of South Asia’s most widely published columnists, whose articles appear in more than 25 newspapers and magazines. He is also frequently published by The Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique and Il Manifesto.

Bidwai is a founder-member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (India). He received the Sean MacBride International Peace Prize, 2000 of the International Peace Bureau, Geneva & London. 

He was a Senior Fellow, Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. Bidwai is the co-author, with Achin Vanaik, of South Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999, a radical critique of the nuclearisation of India and Pakistan and of reliance on nuclear weapons for security.