Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Alliance of Convenience

The Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam stage a skit as their marriage of convenience continues.

If it was only the allocation of three seats in next month’s Tamil Nadu assembly elections that came between the Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) last week, one wonders what all the song and dance was about.

There are reasons though for the DMK playing the politics of brinkmanship; one only has to look closely at the events of the past few weeks to understand the context of the party’s actions. The arrest of former union minister A Raja of the DMK for his role in the 2G telecommunications scam and speculation about the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) soon taking action against members of the DMK’s first family over complaints of bribery have strained the seven-year-long DMK-Congress tie-up. Did the final seat-sharing “agreement” feature a quid pro quo of a reprieve for the DMK protagonists, much like the UPA government has at different points of time gone slow on CBI investigations into similar allegations of corruption against Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party and Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party?

The DMK-Congress alliance is a set case of how federalisation and regionalisation of India’s polity can bring about a cohabitation of otherwise historically inimical forces. Both the parties have undergone a metamorphosis in the state. The DMK, by being in power at the centre almost uninterruptedly for nearly 15 years, has long since ceased to be a marginal regional force, using its power in the centre to cater to its constituents and garnering powerful ministries which have helped its leadership/first family become a major business conglomerate. No one can deny that the DMK first family has used its political clout to create a media empire in the state that is now branching into film production, civil aviation and other areas.

In Tamil Nadu, the Congress has steadily declined to the status of a minor party, no longer able to challenge the two strong Dravi­dian outfits either organisationally or even ideologically. It ­remains content with partaking in the politics of patronage fostered by the DMK. The Congress is happy to just ­provide support from outside to the DMK government in the state in return for an assured and stable presence of the regional party in the centre. It has been convenient for the Congress Party in Tamil Nadu to play second fiddle to the DMK government – protesting none of the government’s excesses or policies while the DMK has used its ministries in the centre mainly to further the ­interests of the leadership. This lack of an ideological or moral ­fibre in the alliances stitched ­between the Congress and its allies in the UPA is one reason for the spate of decisions revealing a high degree of poor governance by the UPA government.

The price that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh claims to have paid for the stability of support from the DMK – “coalition compulsions” – is a lack of due cabinet diligence and no control over the “procedural problems” created by Raja when he was telecommunications minister. This suggests that this coalition is nothing more than a marriage of convenience.

The other major parties in Tamil Nadu are no different from the DMK. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) has in many ways shown itself to be a mirror image of the DMK in its policy direction and organisational structure. And the party has indicated that it would gladly take the DMK’s place if there is a rupture in its alliance with the Congress.

Coalition politics does not have to mean that the parties form alliances only as a matter of convenience. There is the better option of building an alliance around a programme drawn up before the elections, which allows the electorate to judge the alliance’s agenda ahead of the polls and also allows it to question the coalition on the programme after the polls. The federalisation and regionalisation of India’s polity was meant to result in a form of governance and policymaking that was sensitive to regional concerns and did not follow a traditional top-down approach. The DMK-Congress alliance story suggests that such a realisation is still some way off in India’s democracy.

An EPW editorial

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