Post-poll, regional parties will play crucial role

The forthcoming Lok Sabha election is special in many ways. A new generation will participate in elections for the first time. It was born after the Babri riots, anti-reservation agitation, and the unprecedented electoral success of a Hindu-nationalist party in the mid-1990s as well as after the liberalisation of the economy had become irreversible. It went to school after Pokharan-II. Most parties were formed before these events and are still enmeshed in debates of a different age. Unsurprisingly, they find it difficult to understand the new generation. There are three additional reasons why this election is special. First, never before has the BJP contested a national election under a non-upper caste leader. Second, this is the first occasion after liberalisation, when the country is going to polls while the Left Front is in disarray. Third, most parties are in the midst of inter-generational leadership transitions. While these developments add to the unpredictability of this election, we can anticipate a few possible post-election scenarios.

The Third Front is unlikely to seriously challenge the dominance of the BJP and the Congress. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the weakness of the Left Front, the only truly national political organisation outside the NDA/UPA that can provide an ideological framework to bring together diverse regional parties, limits the viability of a non-BJP/Congress coalition. Second, the parties keen to join the Third Front seem to be interested only in a post-poll alliance. Third, most potential members of the Third Front are unlikely to improve their 2009 seat shares. Fourth, the generational shift underway in family-governed regional parties will complicate coalition-building. Because of the last mentioned factor, the Third Front’s unviability will not make life easier for the BJP and the Congress. Since neither of the two leading parties can win a majority of seats on its own, we will have to examine a number of possible scenarios depending on which of them emerges as the largest party.

Rallying allies

There are two possibilities if the BJP emerges as the largest party. It could choose either a Hindu hardliner or a moderate as its leader. Under the first scenario, the BJP would have to yield more concessions to prospective allies wary of hardline Hindutva. From the regional parties’ perspective, this is desirable because they will enjoy greater bargaining power. Moreover, under the second scenario, the government will be unstable due to threat from BJP’s hardliners, whereas under the first, the hardliners will be busy keeping the coalition afloat. Since the hardliners can anticipate the regional parties’ moves, they will build bridges beforehand and render the second possibility superfluous.

A Congress victory in the next election - its third successive victory - would present regional parties with three options. First, they could join the Congress bandwagon as yet another regional ally, resulting in intensification of competition within the UPA.

Second, they could join the NDA and challenge the Congress in 2019 or even earlier. Third, they could protect their home turf by plunging deeper into sons-of-soil politics. The mishandling of the Telangana issue has already prepared the ground for parochial politics. Under the first scenario, the existing regional allies and provincial leaders of the Congress will block new entrants. If forced to make room, they will occupy the vacuum left behind by the newcomers. The second scenario is associated with collective action problems because if the BJP loses a third successive election to the Congress, its claim to lead a non-Congress alliance will weaken. The BJP will not only find it difficult to rally allies, it will also need many more allies to challenge the Congress. But larger coalitions are more unstable and present greater difficulties in balancing conflicting interests. Leaders of regional parties can anticipate the game of musical chairs associated with the first scenario and the coordination problems associated with the second, and will secure their immediate interests by choosing the third alternative if the Congress emerges as the largest party.

Parochial interests

But regional parties might not feel similarly marginalised if the BJP emerges as the largest party. There are three reasons for this. First, they could ally with the Congress, which will continue to be an important player with governments in about a third of the states as well as presence in both Houses of parliament. Second, the BJP can accommodate regional players without squeezing its own leaders, because presently it has only a few coalition partners. Third, unlike the Congress, the BJP does not pose a direct threat to regional parties in large parts of the country, where it has no presence.

One last possibility remains to be considered. The Gandhi family might find it difficult to hold on to the party if the Congress’ seat share drops dramatically because it has failed to provide a leader. Regional satraps could desert the party, intensifying political competition within provinces across the country. If, in addition, the BJP performs so well that it needs fewer allies, the space for regional players will be further restricted leading some of them toward more extremist assertions of parochial interests.

A look at these alternative possibilities throw up three things. First, a moderate cannot emerge as a compromise prime minister if BJP emerges as the largest party. Second, irrespective of which of the six scenarios materialises, regional parties are going to loom larger in national politics. Third, a massive victory for the BJP or the Congress will be associated with efflorescence of parochialism across the country. The two national parties should hope that their main opponent is not decimated.

(The writer is an assistant professor at Azim Premji University, Bangalore)

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