Monday, March 09, 2009

Oneupmanship versus realism

The Congress party's very nature and arrogance precludes a cohesive United Progressive Alliance before the elections

The upcoming elections to the 15th Lok Sabha promises to yet another fragmented mandate, ensuring that the era of coalitions is intact. The aspect significant about this set of elections is that, the coalitions are no way set in stone. Whether pre-polls or post-polls, the coalitions being formed are still fluid, most of the regional parties that have aligned with one national party or the other or vice versa, have done so only with instrumental reasons and there are others that have kept their final decision (whether to be in the ruling coalition or in opposition) practically in abeyance, even if they have committed to one front or the other for the time being. This is surprising as the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by the Congress has more or less stayed intact since the withdrawal of support from the left parties in July 2008 over the differences vis-a-vis the Indo-US nuclear deal.

The UPA government survived a trust vote in July 2008 (albeit in an engineered manner) and the alliance was also able to add a new winning partner in the National Conference from Kashmir. The Congress party had nimbly maintained some of the most important cabinet portfolios - finance, home, external affairs, defence, commerce and of course the prime ministerial post for themselves, and had broadly kept the major policy making positions. Most of the hostile criticism, unsurprisingly emanating out of a great degree of difference of opinion on policy making from the left parties during the phase when they were supporting the government, were directed at the Congress controlled ministeries. The Congress had handed over posts that provided a populist edge, coveted by the regional parties - agriculture, railways, transport, heavy industry, telecommunications to their mostly regional allies. Such a disbursal of ministeries was also achieved due to the arithmetic of the seats won by the Congress in comparison to the other parties in the coalition whose seats were confined in specific states.This ensured that the levers of policy making was fairly controlled by the Congress party while the allies were given full rein over ministries which gave them leeway to satisfy their constituents.

Though the UPA rule for five years seems to have demonstrated an understanding by the Congress of working with coalitions explained by a survival instinct, the persistent tendencies of oneupmanship by the party have yet again raised their head. That is visible from the statements of some of its leaders which have suggested that they are loath to ceding ground to coalition partners during seat-sharing or treating them as enduring allies in a post-poll scenario and in their assertions of having a Congress-only manifesto for the elections. Some allies themselves on the other hand, want to go beyond their regionally confined boundaries, as they sense the effectiveness of being in central positions of power and therefore the necessity of having a broader national presence. That explains the greater degree of bargaining for seats and influence beyond their present confines by the Samajwadi Party-SP (primarily based in Uttar Pradesh) and the Nationalist Congress Party led by Sharad Pawar (whose influence is highest in Maharashtra). As a pressure tactic, the two parties have kept their lines of communication with other coalitions -the National Democratic Alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the case of the former and the loosely knit "third front" anchored by the Left in the case of the latter. In the same vein, sensing that no option should remain unexplored, other regional parties formally committed to these coalitions or otherwise have also kept their lines of communication with the UPA intact. That explains the sudden "overture" to the Congress by the J.Jayalalithaa led All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (formally part of the third front) and the Bahujan Samaj Party's non-commital stance toward any alliance before the elections.

Some senior leaders of the Congress understand that coalitions are inevitable, and they also want to retain the broad policy making sway without restraint that they have had in the UPA government particularly after the withdrawal of support from the left. This has made them realise that the most preferable post poll situation would be one where they form a majority with other UPA partners without having to rely upon support from the left parties. This has seen the Congress up the ante in West Bengal and Kerala, allying with the recalcitrant Trinamul Congress (TMC) in the former to undercut the Left as much as possible. But again, the Congress "political culture" which thrives upon dynastic succession, sycophancy as also a degree of arrogance and oneupmanship in functioning - all legacies drawn from the days of Indira Gandhi, makes it difficult for them to enact a smooth pre-poll coalition with other UPA allies. Many Congressmen prefer a return of the one party era, with yet another of the Nehru-Gandhi family - Rahul Gandhi is the much touted name- as prime minister. The retention of policy level control does not satisfy them, they need control over ministeries that help them partake in the system of patronage. And this explains the fluidity of coalition building which has characterised the polity before elections. Thus, even if the Congress has demonstrated that it is no less proficient in the art of surviving in power within coalitions- something that the BJP showed that it was adept in, the party's very nature acts as an impediment to a smooth retention of the coalition.

The fragmentation of India's polity over time since independence is a function of the greater inclusion of marginalised sections into ruling classes, federalisation owing to the nature of India's Constitution and most importantly the weakening of the over-centralised Congress party which dominated national politics for decades. The positive aspect of this fragmentation is the presence of a plurality of voices representing a greater number of local (and parochial) interests and which has forced national parties to adopt states-specific strategies. The quicker the Congress party sheds its pretensions of forming an one party government that is a return to its centralised past, the easier it would be to retain a cohesive UPA which presents itself to the electorate on a common platform of policies, promises and ideas. From all indications of the arrogant nature of the party and the very parochial interests of some of its allies such as the TMC and the SP, such a culmination seems to be difficult in the offing.

Draft of the editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

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