Sun Apr 26th, 2009 at 06:14:26 AM EST
I don't know how to approach ongoing political festival (tamasha) in India. From one side I don't want to oversimplify vibrant and unpredictable political process in this country, putting the contest in Procrust bed of triangular (square) fight between major coalitions, from other side more nuanced description may be mystifying for outsiders. Also there is question of lessons to be drawn from Indian politics, how it's relevant for you. If European Union is more coherent entity with strong executive wing then its politics may become more similar to what is going on here. India after all in many ways is like Europe (it has the same size and her population is more than twice than EU's), it is big peninsula attached to the largest chunk of earth - Asia.
Let me to introduce all the big players first.
United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by Congress had 218 seats in the previous national parliament Lok Sabha. To cross magic figure of 272 in parliament of 543 MPs UPA forged alliance with the bloc of Left parties which had the best ever performance in 2004 with 60 elected MPs. Last summer however this uneasy coalition fell apart over the controversial Indo-US nuclear deal and the government of Manmohan Singh was forced to seek allies in so-called "Other" category, mainly regional Samajvadi Party which had 36 MPs in the last parliament. Also UPA successfully enlisted support of smaller independent parties and bribed opposition BJP MPs to make sure the government survives the vote of no-confidence. No need to say that right-wing National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was left red-faced. NDA had in 2004 only 187 MPs, but due to defections, cash-for-question scams this number was less in the end. Recently NDA's PM aspirant Lal Krishna Advani dared Manmohan to hold public debate, however for the last five years BJP effectively stalled the work of Lok Sabha. Mostly NDA boycotted sessions, and on rare occasions when they appeared they immediately started to sloganeer and make the work of legislature difficult. Almost all laws, including land mark Right for Information Act, National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme Act, etc, were passed under intolerable din.
So, let's see who is at the helm of particular parties and how they can do in the ongoing elections.
United Progressive Alliance (UPA) - 218 seats was composed of the following parties: Indian National Congress (INC) - 145, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) - 21, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) - 16, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) - 9, Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) - 6, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) - 5, Telengana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) - 5, Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) - 4, Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) - 4, Muslim League (MUL) - 1, People's Democratic Party (PDP) - 1 and Republican Party of India - A (RPIA) - 1. Not all these parties endured in the alliance for long though - MDMK departed almost immediately after quarrel of its leader (pro LTTE) Vaiko with DMK supreme Karunanindhi, Chandrashekhar Rao's TRS departed after he realized that Congress reneged on its promise of separate statehood for Telangana, Kashmir-based PDP of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and his daughter Mehbooba left after Congress forged alliance with their archrival National Conference and JMM was embroiled in many criminal scandals and was unreliable ally at best always bargaining hard (demanding rollback of string of criminal charges against its leaders or claiming chief ministership in the state).
Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi
Congress (INC) is caught in dynastic politics of Nehru-Gandhi family. Essentially it was coalition of regional strongmen where Jawaharlal Nehru, then Indira Gandhi played role of the honest broker, putting themselves into axis of the things.
Congress' electoral symbol - the hand.
Congress politics was always to retain power at all costs under adopted liberal (and under Indira socialist) phraseology. No wonder that many former maharajas joined the Congress, natural party of power. Maharajas and big landlords in Congress made sure that in Congress ruled states no meaningful land reforms took place that's why many Indians hold Congess responsible for persistent poverty in Indian villages. Fortunes of this party dipped after 1984 when low-caste Mandal revolution gathered steam and because of divisive, communal BJP politics of Mandir in 1990s. (Many historians treat 1980s and 1990s as era of Mandal and Mandir, named after Prasad Mandal commission which in 1980 recommended reservation of state jobs and seats in educational institutions for oppressed Scheduled Castes and Tribes, and Mandir is of course Ram temple which BJP promised to build instead of destroyed Babri Masjid in Ayodhya). After being effectively decimated in the hindi belt by BJP and remnants of Janata Dal Congress turned to its prime dynasty. Sonia Gandhi, reluctantly joined politics in 1998. She inherited dismal legacy and tried hard to bring in efficiency in the moribund party machine. She has coterie of advisers, namely Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, Ahmed Patel, and few others who are called brahmans by outsiders. Brahmans have no grass root support and enjoyed fruits of power without elections (only recently Pranab Mukherjee joined electoral politics being elected to Lok Sabha for the first time in 2004 and that after 3.5 decades in most important jobs like foreign, finance, defence minister). Congress retained pockets of influence in some southern states like Andhra Pradesh and in northeastern states like Assam. Also Congress plays role of the main opposition in Left-ruled states like Kerala and West Bengal. In these states Congress led by so-caled kshatryas - consummate politicians who won and lost many electoral battles. These kshatriyas are not trusted in Delhi because of their alleged political ambitions. Like Sharad Pawar (now head of Nationalist Congress Party) all regional heavyweights are cut to size by ever-suspicious Congress high command (an euphemism for Nehru family). By the way this is also one of the reasons behind faded fortunes as infighting is inherent to Congress where rival parties rush with complains to the high command. In 2004 Sonia Gandhi successfully forged pre-poll and post-poll alliances with regional and communist parties and returned Congress to power in Delhi after decade in wilderness. Because of her foreign origin she declined the post of PM, installing her long time adviser and secretary Manmohan Singh instead, who is keeping the seat warm for her children, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra.
Priyanka is favoured by masses of Congress workers because she is outspoken, at ease with hindi, however her more reluctant and shy brother is now being heavily promoted, he is currently Congress general secretary.
What are the prospects for Congress in 2009? Normally unlike robust language employed by BJP Congress has body language of the loser. However vistories in Delhi and Rajasthan last december brought unexpected arrogance to the Grand Old Party and in the beginning of march the party adopted resolution saying no to national pre-poll alliance preferring to forge state-specific alliances. This arrogance baffled allies and now UPA seems to be disintegrated barring few states like Maharashtra and West Bengal. In the cow belt states Congress is going alone which means it will win only few seats like Gandhi family pocket boroughs in Amethi and Rae Bareilly. Much will depend on two crucial southern states Tamil Nadu and Andhar Pradesh. In Tamil Nadu Congress is allied with DMK but because of the ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka united opposition led by Jayalalitha is expected to do well. Last time in 2004 it was completely opposite - DMK and Congress led united alliance with MDMK, PMK and two Communist parties to sweep Jaya out of power. In Andhra Pradesh (from where Congress got almost third of its MPs) Congress has good chief minister Rajashekhara Reddy but there opposition led by TDP is also united. Main mistake Congress committed was of course parting the ways with Communists last summer. Now Manmohan Singh shows his elastic morale making ouvertures to Communists, praising their intellectual qualities and after all he "enjoyed working with them". Last summer he whined and complained publicly how they "had tortured" him all four years of uneasy co-existence. His ouvertures fell on deaf ears and it's unlikely comrades forgive him for "betrayal". Even if Congress and Communists forge new post-poll alliance it's Manmohan Singh who will be the first casualty losing his job.
Let's turn to the BJP and National Democratic Alliance (NDA). It had 187 seats in last Lok Sabha: BJP had 138, Shiv Sena (SS) - 12, Biju Janata Dal (BJD) - 11, Janata Dal United (JDU) - 8, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) - 8, Telugu Desam Party (TDP) - 5, All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) - 2, Indian Federal Democratic Party - 1, Mizo National Front (MNF) -1, Nagaland's People Front (NPF) - 1. After 2004 many parties left NDA, some like TDP immediately, others like BJD or Trinamool just few weeks ago. Only Shiv Sena, JDU and SAD proved to be dependable, all-weather allies, mostly because they have coalitions with BJP in their respective states of Maharashtra, Bihar and Punjab.
BJP symbol is lotus.
As I said earlier BJP employs very muscular rhetorics. Its rise to power in 1990s was due to successful social engineering, divisive politics of Mandal and Mandir and in the beginning of this century it seemed to all to replace the Grand Old Party as a natural party of power. Despite communal rhetorics and anti-muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002 BJP tried hard to moderate its unsavioury image by presenting highly respected talented orator Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In practice too BJP led government pursued the same liberal policies like Congress. Lord Meghnad Desai, so-called Indian expert in British parliament never tires to advocate merging of Congress and BJP on similarities in their policies. However it's very silly suggestion as Gandhi family has long history of animosity towards BJP and her parental ultranationalist (some say fascist) organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and numerous sister concerns like Bajrand Dal (BD) and Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP). It's old vendetta politics and in India people have long memory, sometimes too long. BJP in its manifestos always begins with description of "Golden Age" of ancient India, of Ramayana and Mahabharata, before coming down heavily on Congress for its failures on all fronts.
BJP after unexpected loss of 2004 elections did rather well in intermediate state elections but somehow managed to enter electoral arena this time in worse shape than ever.
Lal Krishna Advani
Almost nobody in the country believes that 81-year old Lal Krishna Advani (who replaced ailing Vajpayee at the helm) will make it to Raisina Hill into office of PM. No, it's not his health concerns (he even was shown on TV heavylifting in gym), it's UP, the most populous Indian state. UP gives enough reasons for concerns for BJP because 2 years ago in assembly elections BJP was almost wiped out from its electoral map following Congress' footsteps. 160-mln strong UP elects 80 MPs and in the golden 1990s BJP used to get at least 30 (sometimes 50 plus) MPs from this state alone. Now BJP is being reduced on par with Congress to single digit figure by two local caste based parties SP and BSP. The second factor is BJP's unpopularity among regional outfits. BJP almost have no presence in Communist ruled states and in the south. Yes, they successfully saffronized one state Karnataka, but in crucial Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu BJP is marginal almost non-existent entity. Local players like TDP and AIADMK (who are greedily viewed by BJP as potential allies in the centre) did not bother to notice BJP, instead they forged alliances with more relevant Communists in these states thus giving credence to the mirage of third front government.
In 2004 Congress and BJP scored 26% and 22% of votes nationally and had more than half of Lok Sabha divided between them. That's why commonsensical analyses put these two parties in front, dismissing possibility of the third front government. Only stint in power the third front had in 1996-1998 when it was supported by Congress from outside. Now with new more stronger candidates for the top job like Mayawati it seem also unlikely but we should not forget that Congress and BJP votes shares consistently declined in favour of regional outfits. That's why it's worthy to explore these outfits in detail, but this analysis we can reserve for next time.