Debating India

The unaligned players

Saturday 11 September 1999, by MURALIDHARAN*Sukumar

How crucial a role will the handful of parties that are currently unaligned or conditionally aligned with either of the two major political formations come to play in forging a new balance of parliamentary arithmetic post-election? A survey of the scene.

IN the whirl of Indian politics, alliances come in several forms and shapes. Unconditional exchange of vows pledging two parties to support and nourish each other irrespective of all else are obviously a rarity. Purely contingent agreements on sharing se ats, of one party transferring its political constituency’s vote for the purpose of augmenting another’s elected representation in Parliament, are rather more frequent. These can come with a variety of conditions attached on the relations between the two parties after elections are concluded.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party presents a multitude of such scenarios. It includes a number of parties that are unconditionally aligned with the BJP’s quest to lead the next government at the Centre. At the same time, there are a number of parties that are conditionally aligned, which would sustain their support subject to certain vital interests being addressed and met. Ranking among the foremost of the conditional allies are Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress , N. Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party and Om Prakash Chautala’s Indian National Lok Dal.

Chandrababu Naidu and Chautala are newly arrived in the BJP’s political constellation. Both have strong - and realisable - ambitions in the regional political context. Moreover, they have the kind of support base and resources to compel the BJP to accept a subordinate role in their respective States. Mamata Banerjee too is the senior partner in the West Bengal context, though her ambitions of displacing the ruling Left Front look nowhere near fruition. And though all three are conditionally aligned with the NDA, their ability to work towards the fulfilment of State-specific interests would seem somewhat disparate.

The Biju Janata Dal and the Janata Dal(United) have similarly strong regional interests underpinning their alliance with the BJP at the national level. The J.D.(U) in Karnataka, a splinter of the party ruling the State today, seeks a junior role in a fut ure government led by the BJP. In Bihar, where Assembly elections are due in the next few months, it will presumably like to reverse the order of precedence, gaining for itself the larger share of seats in an electoral arrangement with the BJP. The futur e of the J.D.(U)’s alliance with the BJP would depend upon how far these two scenarios are fulfilled. Since all the top leaders of the J.D.(U) are practised hands in the art of political schisms, this must seem one of the most vulnerable flanks in the ND A.

The BJD in Orissa is yet an untested entity, with its leader by dynastic inheritance, Navin Patnaik, being a novice in politics. Here too the test of the alliance will come in the next few months when Assembly elections are held.

The conditionally aligned parties within the BJP camp would, of course, enjoy only as much leeway as their numbers permit. The current round of elections in Bihar and Orissa would afford the test for any future agreements on seat sharing at the State lev el. Should discord arise at any stage, they are unlikely to switch allegiance to the opposite camp, since for most of them the Congress(I) represents a traditional adversary. Rather, the unaligned parties, although their number is shrinking, are likely t o play a mediatory role in forging a new balance of parliamentary arithmetic.

NO more than four of the unaligned parties seem on current reckoning to have any chance of influencing the course of political events in the months to come. Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party is, for obvious reasons, the most weighty among these. Mula yam Singh draws his sustenance almost entirely from Uttar Pradesh, where he obtained a substantial 28 per cent of the vote share in the 1998 general elections. He is threatened now by a desertion of Muslim voters to a Congress party trying hard to reinve nt itself in the State. But he is likely to dispose of the greater resources at the grassroots and capitalise on the Congress(I)’s obvious lack of credible candidates. Having begun his poll preparations early, Mulayam Singh stands a reasonable chance of retaining his strength of 20 in the Lok Sabha. That could make him the most substantial of the unaligned group.

Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party is fighting hard to harness the anti-incumbency factor in its favour. On current reckoning, the going appears tough for him. The traditional Congress(I) vote appears to have split almost evenly in Maharashtra, le aving the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance the winner by a large margin of the popular vote. But the stakes in overturning the discredited saffron alliance are strong and if Pawar is able to deploy his formidable political skills appropriately, he could benefit fr om a late surge.

G.K. Moopanar’s Tamil Maanila Congress is fighting what appears a symbolic battle against the communalism of the BJP and the corruption of Jayalalitha. The personal prestige of some of its leaders may win it a handful of seats. But it would need a substa ntial bloc of unaligned parties in Parliament to team up with if it is to exert any leverage.

The Bahujan Samaj Party, led by Kanshi Ram and Mayawati, is another party that has raised the symbolic battle to the level of fine art. It commands a substantial 20 per cent share of the popular vote in Uttar Pradesh and is not a trivial player in Madhya Pradesh and Punjab. But its representation in Parliament has never been proportionate to its popular vote share and it remains averse to any kind of alliance that may dilute its unique political identity.

In the most generous reckoning, the unaligned parties are unlikely to get much more than 7 per cent or so of the seats in Parliament. That would make them not quite a substantial force in the immediate post-electoral context. But as and when the potential sources of discord within the NDA begin to multiply, their role could become more significant.

See online : Frontline


Volume 16 - Issue 19, Sep. 11 - 24, 1999

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