The great game among Indian political parties

The TMC and AAP will eventually hit roadblocks in their expansion. But for now, the Congress will be worried at the emergence of alternatives and the BJP will be pleased at the fragmentation of the Opposition space
The declining appeal of the Congress has provided an opportunity for parties such as the AAP and the TMC to go on the offensive now. They are unlikely to let it go. (Hindustan Times) PREMIUM
The declining appeal of the Congress has provided an opportunity for parties such as the AAP and the TMC to go on the offensive now. They are unlikely to let it go. (Hindustan Times)
Updated on Oct 16, 2021 08:13 PM IST
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ByRahul Verma

A new great game has begun among India’s political parties, with deep implications for the very shape and structure of the national political party system in the run-up to the 2024 elections and beyond. With the position of the Congress as India’s principal Opposition continuing to erode, the upcoming state assembly elections in 2022 and 2023 are likely to become the main theatre of this impending battle.

This is why the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) have either initiated, or intensified, their political moves. especially in states that will go to the polls over the next two years. The AAP is positioning itself as a real contender for power in Punjab, and aims to gain a foothold in Goa and Gujarat. The TMC, meanwhile, is looking to expand its base in the eastern states, particularly in Tripura and Manipur. And by inducting senior Congress leaders in Goa, the TMC hopes to emerge as a major player in the 2022 assembly elections in the state.

Both the AAP and the TMC are engaged in intense competition with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in their home states of Delhi and Bengal respectively, but ironically, in the quest to meet their national ambitions, the Congress will be their main target. Thus, despite frequent calls of Opposition unity, the real political story is which party takes the centre-stage as the national Opposition.

Will India’s Grand Old Party manage to save itself from the raw ambitions of new aspirants that would like to cannibalise the support base of a declining Congress? For their part, what are the opportunities and constraints for these new players as they gain further momentum?

While the AAP has tried to expand in the past (first in 2014, then in 2017), this is the TMC’s first serious attempt to expand nationally. The AAP seems to have learnt lessons from its past failures and is now offering voters a slew of welfare programmes (including subsidised electricity tariffs) and a centre-Right ideological platform (for example, tweaking the school syllabus to include topics on nationalism and maintaining a relative silence on issues related to minority rights). This is also because the AAP shares its target voter base with the BJP — these voters, as the Delhi experience shows, vote for the AAP in state elections, but remain with the BJP in national elections. Nationally too, the AAP clearly believes the same mix of nationalism and welfare will stand it in good stead.

The TMC, on the other hand, has decided to continue taking an aggressive posture against the BJP and its ideological platforms. The party is likely to mobilise its voters from a centre-Left ideological platform — this will include a renewed focus on the poor and women through welfare promises and protecting the interests of religious minorities. Thus, the TMC’s main aim is to consolidate the anti-BJP vote, which is more likely to overlap with the Congress.

This is evident in the difference between the strategies of expansion adopted by the two parties. The TMC attacks the national leadership (particularly the Modi-Shah combine) of the BJP frontally, while the AAP has become muted on this in recent years. Additionally, the induction of senior Congress leaders is likely to remain the dominant strategy for the TMC, while the AAP is likely to use home-grown leaders for its expansion drive.

However, there is a glass ceiling to what the AAP and TMC can achieve nationally in the medium-run. Even if both these parties perform exceptionally well in their home states and win a substantial chunk of seats in the new territories, the combined share of both parties is unlikely to cross 100 Lok Sabha seats — and this is really their best-case scenario, especially when juxtaposed with the fact that AAP’s best performance in the Lok Sabha has been four seats in 2014, and TMC’s best performance has been 34 seats the same year.

In addition, the AAP’s urban-centric political base will create hurdles in its rural expansion and the TMC’s politics of regional pride, as displayed in the West Bengal elections, may emerge as a roadblock for the party in the Hindi states. Similarly, both Arvind Kejriwal and Mamata Banerjee have, in the past, have taken strong positions against business and private capital, which is likely to become a serious impediment in their ability to raise campaign finances.

Both parties have also become single-leader shows, and thus they will find it hard to convince new voters about the increasing centralisation within the BJP or the dynastic nature of the Congress. These parties are also limited by a lack of broad ideological programmes and a well-defined social base. These two factors are important for organisation-building and creating foot-soldiers who can become the mainstay of the party through thick and thin.

What will be the national implications of this new churn? The occasional outburst from senior leaders within the Congress and the news of their joining another party will become a norm. The Congress must realise that electoral politics is a zero-sum game. Many of the state-level parties rose in the 1980s and 90s by mobilising a section of the Congress’s base. The declining appeal of the Congress since 2014 has provided an opportunity for parties such as the AAP and the TMC to go on the offensive now. They are unlikely to let it go.

Paradoxically, while the objective is to challenge the BJP, the race to become the main national challenger is likely to fragment the Opposition space further and prolong the BJP’s shelf-life as the pre-eminent force in national politics. The BJP may continue to face challenges due to the slowdown of the economy and civil society protests on various issues, but electorally it will remain buoyant. It may be prudent to recall that the Congress’s national dominance till 1989 was sustained in part by a fragmented Opposition with no clear national-level challenger. There will be at least three competitors for the second spot, thereby increasing the effective electoral distance between the BJP and the second party.

And so, while in the long-run, both the TMC and AAP carry the potential to exploit the BJP’s vulnerabilities, in the short-run, India’s ruling party may well be pleased with the expansion of the Delhi and Bengal forces.

Rahul Verma is fellow at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi, and co-author of Ideology and Identity: The Changing Party Systems of India

The views expressed are personal

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Sunday, December 05, 2021