The only thing certain about the coming general elections, to be held in five phases between April 16 and May 13, is that neither the Congress nor the BJP — India’s two big parties — will win the 272 seats needed for a majority in the 543-member Lok Sabha. The last time a single party won a majority in a general election was a quarter of a century ago — the Congress in 1984.
The Congress declined, the BJP emerged out of the old Jana Sangh and thrived. So did numerous other smaller parties — based on regional, linguistic or caste identities — from the late 1980s.
Four governments were formed between the two elections of 1996 and 1998 — A.B. Vajpayee’s 13-day government, H.D. Deve Gowda’s, Inder Kumar Gujral’s government, and finally Vajpayee all over again — with a total of 25 parties participating.
The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had 23 partners in 1999. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) had 13 constituents and six outside supporters in 2004.
The Congress and BJP have both accepted the reality of their dependence on the smaller parties only grudgingly.
“Alliances are a necessary evil,” said Devendra Dwivedi, Congress Working Committee member. Added BJP general secretary Arun Jaitley: “Such parties add to the political instability in the country.”
Today, both big parties are marginal players in four big states: Tamil Nadu, Bihar, UP and West Bengal, which together elect 201 of the Lok Sabha’s 543 members.
“Given that, on their own, they are out of the contest in these four states, neither the can dream of a majority at the Centre all by itself,” said Zoya Hassan, political science professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.
The failures of the national parties have contributed in large measure to the emergence of the regional ones.
When certain social classes found their aspirations were not being articulated loudly enough within the pan-Indian constructs offered by the Congress and the BJP, they pushed for fresh alternatives.
“The umbrella concept of the national party has crumbled because parties like the Congress do not allow powerful local leaders within their structure,” said B.Venkatesh Kumar, Mumbai-based political analyst.
Caste and linguistic chauvinism have been the prime drivers of the fragmentation of India’s politics, starting with the Dravidian politics of Tamil Nadu that became formidable in elections from 1967. By the 1990s, caste-based parties commanded large tracts of India.
The inequitable distribution of India’s impressive economic growth after liberalisation added a new dimension to identity politics. The regional parties too began to split into smaller entities.
Paradoxically, smaller parties have also tended to gravitate towards either the Congress or the BJP, bringing the country closer to a bipolar polity. Any third pole in India is a numerical impossibility, admitted a regional party leader who did not want to be identified.
“All parties minus BJP and Congress will not add up to 272 and therefore you cannot have a government without one of them,” he said. Both Congress and BJP know this and want to use it to their advantage.