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Divided we stand

A bipolar polity is better but there are compelling arguments in favour of coalitions, writes Paranjoy Guha Thakurta.

india Updated: May 17, 2007 23:54 IST

By Addressing Parliament on May 10 on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the revolt of 1857, the President of India, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, said: “Many challenges need to be responded to: the emergence of multi-party coalitions as a regular form of government that needs to rapidly evolve as a stable, two-party system”.

The following day, the Bahujan Samaj Party won an absolute majority in the assembly of the country’s most-populous state, Uttar Pradesh. The victory of the BSP, which is at present not aligned with either the Congress or the BJP, in a sense, ensured that the Rashtrapati’s wishes would not be fulfilled, at least not in a hurry. Far from becoming bipolar, on the contrary, there is considerable evidence to indicate that the Indian polity could further fragment.

It appears highly unlikely that the Indian political system would start resembling those in the United States or Britain in the foreseeable future. Even if the country has seen the formation of two major ‘stable’ coalitions, the UPA and the NDA, and even if the contours of a so-called Third Front remain rather nebulous, it would be erroneous to presume that India is moving — or could move — towards a two-party system in the near future.

Until not very long ago, many thought coalition regimes were an aberration in India. Today it is, by and large, acknowledged that the current phase of coalition politics may not be as short as had earlier been presumed. But to claim that the two largest parties represent the poles of the polity would be too simplistic a view of the complex reality of the country. On the contrary, especially after the UP elections, it can be contended that Indian politics is becoming less, not more, bipolar. In other words, the process of political fragmentation that started in the 1980s is far from over.

Although two candidates in any election — to the Lok Sabha, the assembly or the panchayat — typically garner three-fourths of the total votes cast, the aggregate political picture at the national level is very different. The Congress and the BJP put together (without their allies) did increase their combined tally in the Lok Sabha by 22 seats between the 1996 and 1998 general elections. But in the 1999 elections, the number of seats won by the BJP and the Congress came down to below the level in 1996. In fact, the combined strength of 296 MPs for the BJP and the Congress was the lowest since the BJP came into existence in 1980. The trend continued after the 2004 general elections: the Congress and the BJP together obtained 283 seats in the Lok Sabha, just 11 above the half-way mark. Although a general election was contested by two major coalitions for the first time in 2004, neither came close to obtaining a majority; the UPA coalition currently depends on 61 Left MPs for a majority in the Lok Sabha.

At the national level, there are indeed two political formations of significance. But the scenario gets blurred as one looks at the states. In only seven out of the 28 states and the national capital are the main political adversaries the Congress and the BJP. These are Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Delhi, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. These states between them account for less than one-fifth of the total of 543 seats in the Lok Sabha. There are states where either the Congress or the BJP is a major political player but the other is minor (UP, Bihar, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh). In Assam and Karnataka, the BJP is the third largest party and in Arunachal Pradesh, the party came into existence almost overnight. Then, in states like Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, neither the BJP nor the Congress can claim to be one of the poles of the polity.

If at all one can talk of two poles in Indian politics, it would have to be in terms of the pole of sectarian politics on the one hand, and inclusive politics on the other. The BJP, the caste-based parties (like the SP and the BSP until recently) as well as the regional parties, all base themselves on a sectarian appeal though this is never publicly acknowledged. The Congress and the Left seek to make a genuinely pan-Indian appeal, but the Communists are largely confined to three states. The recent victory of the BSP in UP and earlier, the defeat of the NDA in 2004, would convey an impression that in the contest between these two types of political mobilisation, sectarian forces have not been able to prevail over political forces that try and to appeal across the social spectrum.

Those who believe the Indian polity is becoming bipolar overlook the fact that coalition politics can create compulsions for the larger party to woo the smaller ones and not the other way round. In UP, the BSP had on three occasions in 1995, 1997 and 2002, formed the government in the state with the support of the BJP after having opposed the party during elections. On the first two occasions, the BSP has held the upper hand despite the fact that the BJP was by far the larger of the two parties in the assembly. This was possible because the BJP’s stake in keeping the Samajwadi Party out of power was greater than that of the BSP. Two instances of the ‘tail wagging the dog’ syndrome took place in Himachal Pradesh in 1996 when Sukh Ram’s Himachal Vikas Party with two MLAs allied with the BJP to form a ‘stable’ government in the state for five years and the more recent case of the Madhu Koda government in Jharkhand. As with Sukh Ram, Koda was able to arm-twist larger political parties because the numbers of legislators owing allegiance to the UPA and the NDA were almost evenly balanced.

A common fallacy that is related to the conviction that India’s polity is essentially bipolar stems from the notion that the decline of the Congress and the rise of the BJP are closely linked. It is true that the period that saw the fastest growth of the BJP — from two seats in the Lok Sabha in 1984 to 182 seats in 1998 — coincided with the phase of the most rapid decline of the Congress: from 401 to 112 seats. But the two phenomena are not completely correlated. In many regions where the Congress has been almost marginalised, it has been displaced not so much by the BJP but by smaller, regional parties.

The marginalisation of the Congress in UP has not led to the BJP becoming a party with unquestioned dominance in the state. In Bihar too, the Congress has been reduced to a marginal presence over the last decade-and-a-half, but its decline has not led to the BJP becoming the dominant party. In Orissa, Assam and Karnataka, the BJP has grown rapidly, more often than not by consolidating the anti-Congress political forces. It is another matter that other anti-Congress groups — like the JD(U) in Karnataka, the BJD in Orissa and the AGP in Assam — have at certain stages chosen not to compete with the BJP but gained by aligning with it.

The short point: those who believe India would move towards a two-party system may be indulging in wishful thinking. One could, of course, contend that a bipolar polity is better than a fragmented multi-party political system. But there are equally compelling arguments in favour of many parties and coalitions coexisting in a heterogeneous, plural, deeply divided and highly hierarchical society such as ours.


Paranjoy Guha Thakurta is the co-author of A Time of Coalitions