The Guest Column

26th May 1996

Regional parties gain dominance in India

by Dr.Stanley Kalpage

The legitimacy of a democratic political regime depends on the proper functioning of the electoral system. Indians can take pride that, under the watchful eye for India's Election Commission, headed by the no-nonsense T.N. Seshan, over 300 million out of the 590 million registered voters of the largest democracy in the world have cast their ballots on four separate days so far in a relatively quiet election, to elect 537 out of the 545 members in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India's parliament. The election was not without its share of the corrupt practices, like booth capturing and thuggery associated with elections in India, but the incidence of violence and corruption is reported to have been less than in previous recent elections.

Stabilizing a minority government

The BJP (195 seats) has emerged as the single largest political formation with the Congress (I) (138) and the National Front/Left Front (117) trailing behind. Atal Behari Vajpayee has formed a government and will have to prove his majority on May 27. An inevitable part of the election process after the results have shown a hung parliament is the political bargaining and horse-trading that is undoubtedly taking place. Money will play an important role in the political shifts that will occur before the BJP faces a vote of confidence in parliament. Vested interests like big business would strive to safeguard the party of their choice, the BJP and will go to great lengths to lure supporters away from other parties. Even though prime minister Vajpayee has promised that he himself would not try to gain supporters by corrupt practice it is too much to expect that some of his powerful and wealthy supporters would not try to buy over as many members as possible either to support the BJP in parliament or to abstain or even stay away when the crucial vote is taken.

India's defection laws would allow only at least one-third of the members of a registered political party to cross over without incurring the penalty of losing their seats and having to fight a bye-election. But this law does not seem to have been strictly enforced. There is greater cohesiveness in the Congress (I) and it seems that defection, if any, would be from the loosely-knit collection of parties called the National Front. Fearing that they would be vulnerable, the leaders of the National Front are reported to have caused their members to be kept in seclusion in Delhi. Even so, attractive inducements are likely to be offered. And this is where the politicians and the financiers get together. They feed on each other for their mutual benefit but the ultimate result is the destruction of the body politic.

The ascendance of regional parties

The election result indicate that regional parties based on language and caste representing particular states are set to become more politically dominant than before. For example, the DMK in Tamil Nadu, the Telugu Desam in Andhra Pradesh, the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, the Asom Gana Parishad in Assam, the Haryana Vikas Party in Haryana, the Akali Dal in the Punjab and the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh have emerged victorious in their respective states where they also control the state governments. These regional parties form a solid block of about 84 seats and whoever forms a government at the Centre will have to be beholden to them for support. A number of these regional parties including the DMK and the Telugu Desam have already indicated their support for the National Front/Left Front.

In Tamil Nadu with its 39 Lok Sabha seats, the DMK (17 seats) and its election allies, the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) (20 seats) and Communist Party of India (CPI) (2 seats) have swept the polls, leaving the three major political formations, the BJP, the Congress (I) and the National Front/Left Front without a single seat from Tamil Nadu in the Lok Sabha. It is still not clear why Narasimha Rao did not heed the warnings of his Congress colleagues like P. Chidambaram and G.K. Moopanar who saw the writing on the wall and impending doom for the corrupt and arrogant Jayalalitha who, her critics charged, had institutionalized sycophancy and corruption. There were posters depicting her as a Hindu goddess and even as the Virgin Mary. There was also the ostentatious display of wealth, including a million-dollar wedding for her foster-son at a time when food prices were rising and life was becoming intolerable for the ordinary person. Politically connected thugs had been let loose, attorneys had become victims of threats or beatings, journalists were intimidated. A female official who had questioned the financial irregularities in the Tamil Nadu government had been seriously wounded in an acid attack.

Those regional governments that have performed well have been rewarded by the voters by being returned to power. This is evident in Himachal Pradesh, Orissa, Maharashtra and West Bengal. On the other hand corrupt and arrogant leaders in Haryana, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Kerala and Bihar have suffered defeat. The Congress (I) would have fared better in Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, if they had made the correct electoral alliances in these states.

Most of the regional parties in the Lok Sabha are likely to support a National Front/Left Front government and will therefore wield considerable influence at the Centre. A possible outcome will be the enhancement of power to the regions, something that the regions have been asking for. In the context of Sri Lanka's ongoing conflict in the North and the East, a number of Sri Lankan Tamil leaders including Minister S. Thondaman have been eager to trek to Madras to meet Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi. There is nothing wrong in political leaders of political groups from Sri Lanka visiting Karunanidhi or any other Indian political leader. In fact, more such visits at various levels, should be encouraged so that Indian leaders do not get a biased view but are made aware of the correct situation in Sri Lanka. On the other hand, citizens of Sri Lanka should remember that solutions to the internal problems of Sri Lanka must be sought through consultation, compromise and consensus among Sri Lankans. It is inconceivable that Indians would find it acceptable for any Indian Kashmiri, for example, to head for Islamabad for inspiration and assistance in finding a solution to the Kashmir problem.

Shedding a hard-line approach

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and his finance minister, Jaswant Singh are both trying hard to erase the hardline approach of the BJP. The appointment of a Muslim, Sikander Bahkt, and a Sikh Sarthaj Singh, as well as a low caste Hindu from the South were all meant to assuage the critics. However the BJP's plan to press ahead with the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodyha is likely to be an irritant to the Muslims. The BJP leaders cannot be unmindful of the fact that although the BJP has succeeded in winning the largest block of votes in the Lok Sabha, the party has gathered only about 22 percent of the popular vote and that it must necessarily move in the direction of tolerance and restraint. There are also reports that Indian Muslims are ready to live with a BJP government and that they would not like the BJP to be defeated so early before having a chance to show its capability, or otherwise, of governing with fairness and impartiality. They believe that the defeat of the BJP without it being given a chance, could trigger a hard-core Hindu backlash.

Congress still a key player

Meanwhile the Congress hold the key to the survival of any coalition in the present parliament. It can help to make as well as eventually, to break the next government, which is likely to be a National Front/Left Front government led by Deve Gowda. There is hope for the Congress for the future in that it has still got 34 percent of the popular vote, and that with a leadership which will induce the dissidents to return and with more reliable election alliances in the future, it can win a working majority at the next election. It may have suffered what has been described as the worst defeat in its history but the future outlook for the Congress (I) is not all that bleak. The Congress is the only major political formation with a presence in more electorates than any other major party. The BJP is said to have either a marginal presence or none at all in about 200 constituencies. Unless the BJP makes it a point to consciously extend its presence especially in the South where it now has the image of a Hindi party, it will find it difficult to reach the requisite number of seats to form a stable government of its own.

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