Regional parties rise as Cong, BJP shrink

Regional parties rise as Cong, BJP shrink

2014 LS polls The next general election will see the major players a considerably weakened lot

Regional parties rise as Cong, BJP shrink

The next general elections to the Lok Sabha are not far away – they are, in fact, due in just 18 months’ time from now, by May 2014. If the elections are held before they are due, it may not even come as a surprise.

Usually, the ruling party of the day has the advantage of calling for early elections. This prerogative is exercised by the ruling party if it reckons that ordering early polls would help it to win a fresh mandate. However, as things stand, if the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA), led by the Congress, actually goes for early elections, it will be more on considerations of minimising losses than any expectations of winning a renewed mandate.

The reality is that the national polity is in a state of utter disarray. There was a time, immediately after the last LS elections in May 2009, when a buoyant Congress had begun entertaining thoughts of capturing power at the Centre on its own, without having to depend on allies. Though never articulated forcefully, there were talks of a “Mission-2014” – to win a clear majority for the party in the 2014 elections. Its proponents also reckoned that the realisation of the mission would pave the way for the party’s heir apparent, Rahul Gandhi, to take over the prime ministership from Manmohan Singh.

There were reasons for this Congress euphoria. The party’s tally of seats went up impressively to 203 in the 545-member Lower House of Parliament in the 2009 elections – up from the 145 seats it had won in the previous elections in 2004 – an increase of 58 seats. So, from here, the magic number of 273 seats required to command a simple majority in the Lok Sabha appeared to be a realistically attainable goal for 2014. It may also be recalled that at a crucial party brain-storming session in Shimla in 2003, ahead of the 2004 LS elections, the party had very reluctantly decided to seek alliances with other “like-minded” parties, only as a desperate and temporary strategy to revive its dwindling electoral fortunes and to try and defeat the then ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The Congress leadership believed that the party will sooner than later regain its position of dominance in the national polity, to again become the ruling party on its own strength, and without alliances.

The script, however, stands dramatically changed for the party. Nothing has gone right for it since its impressive performance three-and-half years ago. A series of corruption scandals involving the UPA government, including several Congress leaders, has eroded the credibility of the party and the government. The government’s inability to arrest the economic growth rate slide has led to an impression of there being a policy paralysis. The Congress’s alliance partners are unhappy. They nurse a grievance that they are being kept out of the decision-making process on key policy issues, particularly  issues that directly hurt the “aam admi” like the recent decision to restrict the supply of cooking gas to six cylinders per household. Its second largest alliance partner, the Trinamool Congress headed by Mamata Banerjee, has walked out of the UPA.

True, the Congress’ rivals, principally the BJP, has never appeared to be coming out of its prolonged internal leadership tussle. Yet, the Congress has not been able to do well in Assembly elections and by-elections, and local elections in several states. Earlier this year, it failed to capture power in Punjab, fared well below expectations in Uttar Pradesh, where it remains relegated to the fourth place; it nearly failed to regain power from its rivals in Kerala and Uttarakhand; and in Tamil Nadu, despite its formidable alliance with the DMK, the combine failed to stop the Jayalalitha-led AIADMK from returning to power. It helplessly watched as the BJP and its allies retained control of the Mumbai and Delhi civic bodies.

But the worst has happened in its southern citadel, Andhra Pradesh, a state which gave the party as many as 33 seats in 2009. It faces the prospect of being relegated from its dominant position in the state to the third place, should elections take place today. Ever since the death of its charismatic leader Y S Rajasekhara Reddy in a helicopter crash within months of the last parliamentary elections, nothing has gone right for the party in the state. Soon after,  the party scored a self-goal when it mishandled the Telangana statehood demand. It lost the support of its ally, the Telangana Rashtra Samiti. Then it failed to handle the political ambitions of the late Reddy’s son, Jaganmohan Reddy, who has since left the party and launched his own outfit, YSR Congress. The nascent party has sent shock waves through the Congress leadership, as it has swept by-election after by-election in the last one year, pushing the Congress to the second, third, and even the fourth place. To make matters worse, the Congress lost its long-standing Hyderabad City ally, the MIM, which recently withdrew its support to both the Congress government in the state and the UPA at the Centre. But for the protective umbrella of the UPA government, the Congress would have lost its government in the state long ago.

It is not surprising, therefore, that there are suggestions within the party of the need to arrest further erosions in credibility and support in the run-up to the next elections. One idea in this regard is to advance the elections, though the leadership may rather prefer to stay on and complete the five-year term.

The temptation to advance the elections is partly based on the thinking that the main opposition party, the BJP, is hardly in a position to take advantage of its mounting woes. Much as the BJP may find the overall political situation to its advantage, it continues to be weighed down by the lack of cohesion at the top of the leadership. Though he has been more a figurehead, party president Nitin Gadkari’s position has further weakened in the wake of allegations of corruption involving his businesses. There are contenders like Narendra Modi, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley. But the party is unable to decide on any one of them to lead. Modi is considered to be a natural leader to lead the party in the LS polls, if he retains power in Gujarat in December Assembly elections.

But there are serious issues with Modi’s leadership. He may be acceptable to the party, but some existing allies in the NDA, like Janata Dal (United) strongman Nitish Kumar, will resist his leadership. Modi may also be a hindrance to BJP’s search for new allies, which it requires to make the NDA a credible contender for power. This is all the more important because both the BJP and the Congress are in direct contention only in a few states (see chart), what with that space shrinking fast. While the Congress has lost its dominance in Andhra Pradesh, the BJP is in a similar position in Karnataka. Hence, their dependence on alliances.

Of course, between now and next November, half a dozen states are going to polls – Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi. Barring Karnataka, all other states will witness a direct BJP versus Congress fight.

The two parties will try to wrest initiative for the parliamentary elections by seeking to gain the upper hand in the Assembly polls. Even so, it will give them only a psychological edge, at best.

The fact is that the two parties will have to do well in half a dozen big states - Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Bihar, where they are vulnerable and dependent on alliances. In each of these states, regional parties will call the shots. They will be difficult partners to negotiate electoral alliances. Many of them like Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party, Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, Jayalalitha’s AIADMK and Mamata’s Trinamool Congress may not be even interested in pre-poll alliances. The Congress did quite well in these states the last time, whereas the BJP’s performance was miserable – it did not  have allies in three states, and on its own, did not win a single seat in two states.

There are regional leaders who nurse hopes of another third front government post-elections as it happened in 1996. But the difference today is that there is not a single party which is in a position to provide leadership to a third front alliance. The efforts by Mulayam Singh, Jayalaitha and Left leaders to prop up a third alternative failed in 2009 because they could not agree on the leadership issue.

So, what is clear is that the next elections will see a considerably weakened Congress and BJP in the poll fray. They will also find it hard to strike strong pre-poll alliances, as many regional parties will prefer negotiating a post-poll coalition from a position of strength. While one of the two parties – the Congress and the BJP – may still be the more likely choice to lead the next government, what cannot be guaranteed is the stability of such a government, unless the leading parties prepare to cede more power to their prospective allies in the government. While this in itself need not be a reason for instability, what should be worrisome is the lack of a strong, widely acceptable and respectable leader to lead such an unwieldy coalition.

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