Debating India


Congress and coalition realpolitik

Tuesday 11 April 2006, by RAMAKRISHNAN*Venkitesh

The outcome of the Assembly elections may have no direct impact on the United Progressive Alliance Government at the Centre, but the emerging situation has accentuated the pressure on the Congress.

COALITION POLITICS, in terms of its organisational dynamics, is dictated by two seemingly contradictory parameters. One is accommodation and adjustment between coalition partners on ideological, political, and electoral questions - what is termed coalition dharma. The other is realpolitik, characterised by the efforts of the partners to enhance their individual space within the coalition. The leading party of any coalition, obviously, plays the major role in advancing either of these parameters in any given context.

As it faces elections to four State Assemblies and the Union Territory of Pondicherry, the realpolitik factor seems to be getting heavier on the shoulders of the Congress, the leader of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) at the Centre. This is the most significant dimension of the Assembly elections in a larger, national, sense. Right from the basic line-up of electoral forces in the five States to the nuances in terms of power play among UPA partners, realpolitik is dominant.

To start with, the line-up. In all the earlier Assembly elections during the UPA Government’s two-year tenure, the primary competitor of the Congress was the principal opposition at the Centre: the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). But this time round, the primary adversaries in all the five elections are either UPA associates or possible allies who have ideological compatibility with the Congress at various levels.

In two States, Kerala and West Bengal, the Congress is engaged in a bitter contest with the Left parties led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), on whose support from outside the Central Government is dependent for survival. In the other two States and Pondicherry too, the main rivals are regional parties - the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) in Assam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry - who are opposing both the Congress as well as the NDA.

The realpolitik concerns do not end here. Key UPA partners have joined hands with rivals of the Congress in many States. The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), led by Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, has an understanding with the Left parties in both West Bengal and Kerala as well with the AGP in Assam. Another ally, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), led by Railway Minister Lalu Prasad, also has an understanding with the Left parties in West Bengal. RJD and NCP leaders including Mr. Pawar and Mr. Prasad are expected to campaign against their own coalition leader in these States.

The implications of all this as well as the developing election scenario are indeed serious for the Congress. Particularly, in the context of the differences that have come to the fore between the Congress and the Left in recent times. The two have major differences in key areas such as economic and foreign policy. The Left parties perceive many economic policy initiatives like Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the retail sector and disinvestment of profit making Public Sector Units (PSUs) as blatant violation of the National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP), the basic agreement deed for governance. They have also opposed a "pro-United States" tilt in foreign policy as manifested in the vote against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

On their part, sections of the Central Government including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Finance Minister P. Chidambaram have indicated that they are not able to impart greater speed to economic reforms on account of the repeated objections from the Left. The campaigns of various political parties in the five States are not centred round this debate but are focussed mainly on State level issues and the governance record of respective State Governments. However, the performance of the Central Government, with special references to those of Congress Ministers, does come up from time to time. This has aggravated the realpolitik connotations of the electoral battle.

A number of senior Congress leaders expect a status quo result in all the States will help the party. This means the Congress will have to get its governments re-elected in Assam, Kerala, and Pondicherry. Though these are the three smaller Assemblies of the five, the party could highlight a victory in them as a reaffirmation of people’s faith in its governance and policies. Status quo in Tamil Nadu with a return to power of the AIADMK is also perceived as a positive. Essentially because it will reduce the bargaining power of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the major UPA partner from Tamil Nadu, in the Central Government. It is also felt that a Left victory in West Bengal will help in terms of realpolitik. A repeat victory in West Bengal, it is assessed, will keep the Left parties contented.

Early trends from the election scenario, however, do not bolster these expectations. The Congress’ hope of retaining power seems to be suffering setbacks in Assam and Kerala. The internal problems in the CPI (M) had briefly raised the hopes of a repeat victory in the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in Kerala. But the Left party’s central leadership resorted to timely course correction and ended the organisational crisis. In Assam too, the AGP’s campaign aided by like-minded regional forces such as the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) posed a serious challenge to the Congress.

Moves for a `national alternative’

The leadership of the SP and the TDP has launched another initiative that could accentuate the problems of the Congress at the national level. This has come in the form of the announcement of a "national alternative" along with the AGP, the AIADMK, and the National Conference (NC). The likelihood of the AGP and the AIADMK emerging as possible gainers from Assam and Tamil Nadu has undoubtedly bolstered this initiative. The leadership of the new "national alternative" has said it would follow the line adopted by Left parties in the realm of economic and foreign policies.

The contribution of the UPA partners - the NCP and the RJD - to these "election-time trials" through their participation in anti-Congress, pro-Left alliances may not be ideology driven, but that will not minimise the damage potential. By all indications, these smaller parties in the UPA perceive the West Bengal and Kerala elections as payback time. The dominant perception in these parties is that when the NCP led an anti-NDA Assembly election campaign in Maharashtra and the RJD did the same in Bihar, the Congress leadership was interested more in embarrassing these parties to make small time gains for their State units.

The Congress, the leadership of these parties feel, had no empathy for the concept of coalition dharma at that point of time. The RJD had time and again indicated that it was the Congress’ February 2005 line of aligning with opposing camps - the RJD as well as the Ram Vilas Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party - that ultimately led to the defeat of the UPA in Bihar.

Sections of the NDA, particularly the BJP, have been predicting for long that the 2006 Assembly polls would spell doom for the UPA Government. Do all these developments point towards such a possibility? Answers from the leadership of Left parties, which seems to be riding on a wave of confidence in West Bengal and Kerala, negate such doomsday predictions. According to them, the Left parties will continue to support the Congress and the UPA as long as Hindutva communalism represented by the BJP and the sangh parivar remains a threat to national unity and communal harmony. The leaders of the new "national alternative" have also ruled out an alliance with the BJP and this too should come as an assurance about the longevity of the Congress-led Government. Especially because no new government is possible within the existing Lok Sabha without the support of the Congress or the BJP-led NDA.

But in the words of a Central Committee member of the CPI (M), the central message of these Assembly polls would not be assurance on longevity to the UPA Government but the rising popular resentment against Congress policies and style of functioning, and the growing political alignments against it. The leader hoped the election results would be such that they make the Congress leadership take a closer and sensitive look at the fundamental questions of life faced by the majority of Indian people. "In such a perspective," he added, "lies the well being of the people as well as the Congress-led Government at the Centre."

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