Completing the shift of Political power to the Regional Parties
Its National Election time in India again - The Indian democracy is dusting off and preparing its vote gathering machinery again. I have been a participant in the democratic process many times before, but this is the first time that I am experiencing elections as a sitting Member of Parliament.
Five years ago, the people power of India shocked the complacent BJP Led NDA government by rejecting it and offering an even more shocked and surprised Cong an opportunity to cobble together a ‘secular’ coalition and form a UPA government with Communist party support.
Five years of unremarkable governance later, dominated by the Indo-US Nuclear debate later - India is in the midst of a full blown Economic and Security crisis – accompanied by a sharp fall in the confidence of people in their governments and politicians. South Asia seems to be suddenly full of failing, failed or terror struck states – with situations in Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Burma and at a stretch even Sri Lanka all posing serious challenges to India in terms of terrorism, immigration and a host of other problems. Even, China poses a serious economic threat - with its manufacturing industries increasingly looking at the Indian markets to dump its products into as its traditional markets contract or become too expensive to export to.
For all the above reasons, these elections represent a very important milestone. Most importantly, these elections could represent a significant turning point in India’s politics - already struggling with unwieldy coalitions. Elections 2009 could mark a shift in the center of gravity of our National politics - where the Regional parties end up together accounting for the majority of the seats in Parliament. The actions of Regional satraps like Lalu Prasad Yadav’s in Bihar and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s treatment of Cong in Uttar Pradesh and Naveen Patnaik’s breakup with the BJP in Orissa clearly establish the surging confidence in the Regional parties and the relative contempt with which they regard the National parties.
Its made even more ironic because our founding fathers in the early years of our democracy thought of regionalism as a threat to the concept and idea of India, clubbing it with casteism and other divisive pulls as dangers to the idea of United India.
On the face of it, regionalism seems to be natural response to the aspirations of many people in various states around the country that were unrepresented in mainstream political parties. However there are serious challenges to our polity, governance and democracy emerging from this relentlessly increasing trend of regional parties – problems that our founding fathers and our constitution clearly didn’t provide for. These need to be understood and a case for some changes in our constitution to be made.
While regional parties have been around and so have coalitions (Kerala has had a bipolar coalition politics for many years), the concern is the continued fragmentation of our polity with increasingly smaller and smaller parties entering the fray – each addressing smaller and smaller groups of citizens and aspirations. The Janata Party has split into multiple political entities , The Dravidian movement into many as well with even a more recent DMDK of Capt Vijaykant etc, most states are increasingly seeing 3 way election fights and some even four way, testing the first-past the post principle of our Parliamentary electoral system – when candidates are winning with only 20-30% of popular vote. This leads to the first problem of regional parties – which is that India and its democracy is increasingly electing representatives who don’t come close to having the majority of the popular vote and therefore go against the spirit of representative democracy.
The second problem with this trend is of fragmented regional parties is that political coalitions are coming to power with narrow margins and so these political coalitions are increasingly unstable. If we develop an index of political stability and plotted that in a graph, that graph would show a steadily declining line – indicating that inherent instability of governments in Delhi is on the increase. Staying a full term of 5 years is not a measure of stability anymore, its simply a reluctance to face elections before the term is over. Take the case of term of the UPA government - Born as it was on the back of support of it’s political and ideological opponents like the Left, BSP and SP, the UPA was clearly a case of significant political instability – translating into tentative government decision making, short Parliament sessions and tentative approach to legislations by a Government afraid to face Parliament – None of this is obvious or clear to observers of our democracy where the measure of a stable government is length of term – its not, the stability of a government can be measured only by it does or manages to achieve in its term – which explains why the much vaunted economic dream team of the Congress could do precious little by way of Economic reforms in these last 5 years. Italy and smaller countries have unstable coalitions and continue to limp along – but India with its size and diversity will find it difficult to cope with political instability and volality of that kind!
Some regional party backed coalitions are also resulting in political blackmail and rampant corruption – Institutions are increasingly coerced to play the political line – the CBI is an example with its inconsistent prosecution of many political cases – another classic case being the Assam MLA who drove into Kaziranga national park with an AK 47 determined to hunt in a protected area – with a Government machinery unable to stop him, because the government depended on his support. Our constitution never foresaw the eventuality of small groups of MPs as small as 5 to 10 controlling the political outcomes in our Nation. Its precisely because of this unprecedented shift in power to these small groups, that we see the shameful instance of a government getting through a vote of confidence on the back of defections and Cash for votes!
Off course the most critical challenge arising out of this form of regional politics and therefore coalition governments is the lack of a clear governance agenda - The lack of consistent political or economic idealogy binding a coalition can have the effect of no clear governance agenda and a government of fiefdoms and individual policies and approaches. On March 12th post the Tumkur convention of the 3rd front in front of a large crowd of 2 lakh people on the outskirts of Bangalore, national media went into a tizzy with worried news anchors questioning the lack of a common ideology amongst these 3rd front parties. Conveniently ignoring the fact or maybe acknowledging the fact, that the results of the 2004 elections also tossed up the UPA government that had no common ideological moorings as well.
In early February a leading regional party leader discussing elections with me in Central Hall of Parliament, said something prophetic “No regional Party will sit in opposition post this election.” The implication is simple – conventional ideologies being tossed around by National parties like Secularism (by the Congress) and Nationalism (BJP) are failing to create permanent connects to regional parties and their constituents who seem to be more concerned about improving the lot of their state. Political pundits, TV anchors and other ‘experts’ who seem to appear from no-where around the time of elections are all agreeing that Government of India post Election 2009 will be decided from a cast of regional leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati, Jayalalitha, Nitish Kumar and not Sonia Gandhi or LK Advani. Their ideas for India and their views about the same (outside of the political rhetoric) are not known or documented. I know at least one regional leader who holds strong views on increased devolution of Power to the state and marginalization of the center – completely contradicting the essence of our constitution. There is even talk for the first time of two Prime Ministers sharing the 5 year term – a model of power sharing perfected in state politics.
All this indicates that elections 2009 could be an inflection point for our country. We are probably entering new political age - a period of transition, uncertainty and possible volatility for a country and people that’s always known and is used to visibility of economic and political ideology of its governments. This surely can’t the best news for a country that’s spend the last five years being fed dreams of becoming an Economic Superpower by well heeled and well travelled commentators/ministers who were spending far more time in Davos than in the state capitals around India. Elections 2009 could prove to be the most eventful one that you and I have voted in!