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07 June, 2009

Early signs of bipolar trend at national level


The story of how the electorate belied political prophesies and made smooth government formation possible after the Lok Sabha elections deserves close scrutiny because it contains early intimations of a new trend.

Even the best scenario visualised by pollsters had left the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), widely acknowledged as the frontrunner, far short of a simple majority in the 545-member house. Some experts suggested the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), a close runner-up, might be in a better position than the UPA to attract support from other parties and raise the tally to 273, needed to chalk up a majority.

As it happened, the UPA was only 10 short of the magic figure. This shortfall was small enough to be made up without placating Prakash Karat, Mayawati, J. Jayalalithaa, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad, not to mention Nitish Kumar, who too turned up at the auction room.

The voters had so exercised their franchise that the so-called third and fourth fronts were left with no bargaining power at all. The worst sufferers were the reunited Yadavs, who had adopted a strategy calculated to enhance their capability by limiting the Congress party's strength.

This is not the first time that the Indian electorate has demonstrated an uncanny ability to brush aside political gibberish and arrive at the best possible verdict in the circumstances. Millions of voters, taking independent decisions in the privacy of their minds, had given expression to a common will when they voted out Indira Gandhi's emergency regime in 1977. They displayed the same determination again when, sickened by the Janata Party squabbles, they recalled Indira Gandhi.

The 1977 and 1980 verdicts can be explained in terms of a wide swing of the pendulum. The Congress party's vote share had dropped from 43.68 percent in 1971 to 34.52 percent in 1977, sweeping it out of office. It climbed to 42.69 percent in 1980 and the party was back in power.

There was no big swing this time. Provisional figures released by the Election Commission show that the Congress party's share increased slightly from 26.53 percent to 28.55 percent and the BJP's declined slightly from 22.16 percent to 18.80 percent. These changes may be sufficient to explain the rise in the Congress' strength from 145 to 206 and the fall in the BJP's from 138 to 116, but not to understand the way the electorate resolved the national conundrum.

It was the rise of regional parties and the vaulting ambitions of their leaders which had raised fears that government formation might not be easy. There was no appreciable change in the popularity of the national parties and the regional parties. In 2004, the national parties (those recognized as such by the Election Commission) together commanded 62.89 percent of the votes. This time their share was 62.32 percent.

The combined vote of the Congress and the BJP declined from 48.69 percent to 47.35 percent. The decline was too small for the Left parties to realise their pet dream of keeping both of them out of power. Communist Party of India (CPI) general secretary A.B. Bardhan's forecast that the Congress and the BJP together would not win even 250 seats went awry. Actually they increased their combined strength from 283 to 312.

The electorate made government formation easy by eliminating the bargaining capacity of the ambitious leaders of the smaller parties. It rebuffed the sponsors of the Third Front, who wanted to hold the major national parties at bay. The Communist Party of India-Marxist lost 27 seats and the CPI six.

The voters meted out harsh punishment to the Yadavs who had cynically indulged in a game of self-aggrandizement. The Rashtriya Janata Dal of Lalu Prasad lost 20 seats and the Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav lost 13 seats. Their ally, Lok Janshakti Party of Ram Vilas Paswan, lost all its four seats.

The election results provide early intimations of a bipolar trend. A tendency towards a bipolar polity is already in evidence in several states. It is the emergence of diverse forces in the different states that has made coalitions at the centre inevitable.

The parties which aligned themselves with either of the major national parties did well. Those ranged on the side of the Congress benefited the most. The Trinamool Congress in West Bengal made a whopping gain of 17 seats. Going by the winner-takes-all pattern witnessed in Tamil Nadu in recent years, Jayalalithaa's AIADMK should have made a clean sweep this time. Anticipating such a development, the well-known electoral weather cocks, Vaiko's Marumalarchi DMK and S. Ramadoss' PMK switched to her side. The results were disastrous: while the PMK lost all its six seats, the MDMK managed to save one of its four seats.

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's poll eve vacillation notwithstanding, the Janata Dal-United, BJP's partner in the NDA, fared well in Bihar. The only Third Front party to buck the bipolar trend was Orissa's Biju Janata Dal.

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