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15 December, 2008

Assembly elections confirm bipolar trend in India

Indo Asian News Service

Contrary to the fond hopes of Third Front promoters, the Indian polity is moving towards a two-party system. Those who have their eyes focused on the national stage may have missed it, but the results of the just concluded assembly elections confirm the bipolar trend.

All the five states where elections were held were already well on their way to a two-party system with the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) figuring as the contenders for power in Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The Congress and the Mizo National Front clashed in Mizoram.

In Delhi, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, the ruling party held on to power though with reduced majorities in the assembly. In Rajasthan and Mizoram, the party in power and the main opposition changed places. Nowhere did a third party come within striking distance of power.

One aspect of the election results which has received much media attention is the impressive performance of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the four Hindi belt states. The party, which contested almost all the seats in these states, earned a rich dividend in the form of more votes as well as more seats.

Provisional figures indicate that the BSP's vote share registered significant increases in all the states: from 4 percent to 8 percent in Rajasthan, from 4 to 6 percent in Chhattisgarh, from 6 to 9 percent in Madhya Pradesh and from 6 percent to 14 percent in Delhi. The gains are no doubt remarkable. However, they do not represent an immediate threat to the BJP or Congress as neither seems to have suffered significant erosion of support.

The Congress' vote share dropped from about 48 percent in 2003 to about 41 percent in Delhi and the BJP's from 43 percent to 39 percent in Madhya Pradesh and from 39 percent to 36 percent in Rajasthan. These swings are attributable to the burden of incumbency they carried in these states. In Chhattisgarh, the BJP bucked the anti-incumbency factor and increased its vote from 39 percent to 41 percent.

The Congress improved its position marginally in Madhya Pradesh (from 32 to 33 percent), Rajasthan (from 36 to 37 percent) and Chhattisgarh (from 37 to 38 percent). So did the BJP in Delhi where its vote rose from 35 to 37 percent.

Such is the electoral arithmetic that while the two top players together command more than 70 percent of the votes polled, the polity will remain essentially bipolar. The BSP will have to cut into the votes of the Congress and the BJP in a big way before it can upset the two-party system that has come into vogue in these states.

This is not to suggest that the BSP's performance is a flash in the pan. The Congress and the BJP will do well to see it as a convincing demonstration of its capacity to grow beyond the borders of Uttar Pradesh.

The BSP has two distinct advantages. One is that it is now the No. 1 party in the most populous state. The other is that in Mayawati it has a charismatic leader, who is widely recognised as prime ministerial material.

Uttar Pradesh's electoral history testifies to the tortuous course of multiparty politics. In 1985, the Congress was still the leading party in that state, with a 39 percent vote share, as against its immediate challengers, Janata Dal's 21 percent and the BJP's 10 percent. Thereafter, the Janata Dal, the BJP and the Samajwadi Party rose to the top and fell, one after another, before the BSP became the largest party.

It took the BSP - which entered the election arena as an unrecognised party in 1989 and bagged less than 10 percent of the votes - six elections spread over 18 years to achieve primacy. While the BSP (30.43 percent) and the Samajwadi Party (25.43 percent) are way above the BJP (16.97 percent) and the Congress (8.61 percent), it is too early to conclude that Uttar Pradesh has become a bipolar polity.

Outside the Hindi belt too, the two-party system is gaining ground. However, the parties in contention are not the same as in these states. In Andhra Pradesh, a national party and a regional party are the contenders for power. In Tamil Nadu, it is two regional parties that vie for power.

Kerala has a bipolar polity, but it is not two parties, but two fronts that seek power. The doggedness with which the Congress and the Communist Party of India-Marxist, the leading players, have pursued coalition politics appears to have blocked the evolution of a two-party system in the state.

The bewildering variety that has come up at the state level in the wake of the Congress party's decline has made coalition governments at the centre inevitable. Even as we accept this fact realistically, it is necessary to take note of the dangers inherent in the present situation, which allows small parties with limited agendas to exercise authority on a scale beyond their ken. The big parties, which had to yield to the blackmail tactics of such parties, must order their priorities in such a way that the bipolar trend gains strength in the long run.

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