by N Sathiya Moorthy
Independent of the results, which seem to be a foregone conclusion at the moment, the run-up to the presidential poll has exposed chinks in the rival alliances, existing and prospective.
At one stage, the presidential poll was also seen as a forerunner to the parliamentary elections that are due in 2014, but no one is talking about it anymore, confused as they are about the possibilities, prospects and problems on hand.
It had begun with tremors within the ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). The media and the political Opposition charged Congress with inability to manage coalition affairs as West Bengal Chief Minister and leader of the Trinamool Congress partner, Mamata Banerjee, joined hands with Mulayam Singh Yadav, one of the outside under-writers of the Government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, to float three names for the presidency outside what were in the UPA list at the moment. Even as Yadav and SP moved away, and defended their interim positing by supporting UPA nominee and Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, trouble began brewing in the BJP-led Opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
Alliance partners like the Janata Dal (U) and Shiv Sena would rather back Mukherjee for presidency even as the BJP leader of the combine grabbled with internal issues of the party over which JD-U too began focussing over the question of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as NDA Prime Minister. Today, not only are the UPA and NDA driven with contradictions on the choice for presidency, with the latter backing Mr. P.A. Sangma, former Lok Sabha Speaker, in turn an early find of Tamil Nadu’s AIADMK Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and Naveen Patnaik, her BJD counterpart from Odhisa, even the otherwise monolith Left Front saw the CPI partner going its own way.
All these have thrown up possibilities for the next Lok Sabha elections, due in 2014. Analysts and party leaders alike have been talking about realignment of electoral alliances on the eve of polls, and even afterward. At this stage, only one thing seems sure, or, so to say. That the Congress leader of the ruling UPA and the rival BJP leader of the Opposition NDA will not be shaking hands, either before or after the General Elections. This does not mean that parties like the DMK in Tamil Nadu would be crossing floor, or the Left would join hands with the BJP at any time in the foreseeable future, after they had done so once in the past in 1989, when V P Singh became Prime Minister under a short-lived National Front dispensation.
All this means, instead, that the political situation in the country is so fluid that none should be shocked if the ‘unthinkable’ in alliance-politics happens all the same, just as the AIADMK first, and the DMK, later joined hands with the BJP in southern Tamil Nadu, respectively in 1998 and 1999, or the Left joined hands with the Congress, despite all the pre-poll criticism, to prop up a United Front Government, first under H D Deve Gowda and later under I K Gujral, one short-lived than the other, together not completing two years in office. Today, a post-poll government at the Centre, propped up by the Congress and/or the Left is a distinct possibility though at the moment, none would want to comment upon it.
It is too early to predict the tally of each party, particularly the so-called ‘national parties’, in the parliamentary polls next time. Here again, the contribution of their regional allies to the number of seats won by the ‘national parties’, if one left the CPI-M out of the list, should not be over-looked. To delineate their relative legislative strength post-poll from that of their individual allies, and seeking to head a coalition government has not worked either for the BJP or the Congress over the past decade and more. It has not worked for the nation, either.
In the process, the political elite in the country has often tended to blame the alliance partners of these two major parties as the villain of political instability, indecisive approach of the respective governments, and improper decisions with an element of corrupt practices sneaking through the edges. To put the record straight, it should be pointed out that a larger number of ministerial representatives of the coalition leader than those from their alliance partners have been blamed for improper procedures and corrupt practices in decision-making over the same period.
On earlier occasions, in the pre-coalition era, monolith Governments had not escaped such charges, either at the Centre or in the States. Stronger the leadership in terms of legislative majorities, more numerous and more serious have been these allegations. If all of them did not automatically lead to investigation, prosecution and conviction, it also owed to the brutal majorities that the Governments of the day had enjoyed in the legislatures concerned. In a way, it is innovative interpretations of the 2-G scam kind that have made the present-day allegations look more monstrous than in the past, or they actually are. It is but a coincidence, one should believe, that such charges often come to be levelled against alliance partners, and not governmental leaders.
Elections in the coalition era have at times thrown up figures which do not add up to even a comfortable majority for the two national parties. This does not mean that they would be joining hands to form a ‘national government’ of sorts in a particular eventuality. It only exposes their increasing dependence on alliance partners for forming governments independent of each other. If one considered their dependence on their partners for even making up their respective numbers, the myth stands exploded.
Over the decades since Independence, it has also been increasingly found that the so-called ‘national parties’ have seldom adopted a ‘national approach’ on crucial issues of national import. This particularly concerns constituency-driven issues, or on issues where two neighbouring States of the Union are at logger-heads. Regarding the former, ‘national parties’, barring a few, have taken a national position. They have often taken a notional position, instead, which keeps influencing and confusing Governmental policy on a larger framework. At an advanced stage, the regional allies often are left to take the blame.
The changing outlook of the Congress and the BJP over the ‘Sri Lanka issue’ around the time of the UNHRC vote in Geneva earlier this year is a case in point. On the ‘Farakka issue’ involving Bangladesh, the Manmohan Singh Government yielded to the ruling Trinamool Congress ally from West Bengal at the last-minute, but all the same allowed the latter to dictate foreign policy. It has since been the same with the Congress party’s approach to the Trinamool stand on presidential polls. In its time, the BJP leader of the coalition in 1998-99, allowed the AIADMK ally from Tamil Nadu, then still in the Opposition in the State, to dictate terms, until the latter pulled out of the Government and the coalition. The national parties have always shied away from taking strong decisions on the alliance fronts, and have often been seen as adopting devious, if not dubious methods, to get at there.
There have also been occasions when the respective State units of the ‘national parties’ have taken divergent positions, and embarrassingly so, on issues of mutual concern. They are neither able to convince themselves, nor others, about the travesty in the party’s policy, which at the national level becomes increasingly vague with every turn. The ‘Cauvery water’ dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the border row between Karnataka and Maharashtra, are some issues on hand. Forced by fewer numbers in Parliament with increasing frequency, and concluding that it also owed to their inability to reach out to local constituencies, national parties have also been adopting positions that are inconsistent with their national position and responsibilities.
National parties thus need to ponder over the prognosis from such episodes, if their contribution to nation-building have to remain positive and consistent, as slip-ups in policy-making, deliberate or otherwise, have the potential to weaken the nation, both internally and externally. What is required on the ground is unstinted efforts at consensus-building, which should take into consideration the vagaries of alliance-politics, which has come to stay at the national-level, striking the right balance between national priorities and political exigencies, whether of the regional variety or otherwise.
The run-up to the presidential poll has not only thrown up two main candidates for the presidency. It has also revived talks of early polls to the Lok Sabha – which has since died its natural death – and also the limelight on a host of regional leaders, either as the king, queen or king-maker after the parliamentary elections, whenever held. What has not been discussed as much is the possibility of a non-Congress, non-BJP Government at the Centre, and the relative stability of such an exercise. It is too early to predict how the parliamentary poll scenario, particularly in the post-poll situation would evolve.
Considering that the nation’s economy is tottering at best, and accompanying political factors, including matters of external equations and internal security, too have a vicious cyclical link to the same, it is time political parties and their well-wishers begin giving greater attention to macro issues and concerns that await any or many of them in office, now or later – without stopping with micro details on who is right, who is wrong – and who should be won over as an electoral ally for the future, not necessarily the why of it but mostly the how of it.
(The writer is a Senior Research Fellow at Observer Research Foundation for which this paper was written)