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The politics of Raisina Hill

That Pranab Mukherjee would become the thirteenth President of India was never in doubt. However, the way traditional rivals found themselves on the same side and once-faithful allies broke ranks throws up new pointers to the fluid state of coalition politics.

Story: Paranjoy Guha Thakurta | 31st July 2012, 11:37 Hrs

Clearly, partners and supporters of the country’s twolargest political parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, preferto keep their options open in the run-up to the next general elections,scheduled for April-May 2014, but which could take place earlier. 

It was not just the two bitter rivals in India’s mostpopulous state, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, which ended upsupporting the candidate of the ruling United Progressive Alliance. The Leftand the Trinamool Congress too found each other backing the same person. MamataBanerjee’s tantrums were worth nothing at the end of the day. She had not soughtthe approval of either A P J Abdul Kalam or Gopal Gandhi before suggestingtheir names for the posts of President and Vice President. Nor did it matterfor her that Pranab-babu would become the first Bengali to occupy thelargely-ceremonial post.

The West Bengal Chief Minister realised with a rather heavyheart that the government in New Delhi controls the purse strings that matter --her counterpart from Uttar Pradesh Akhilesh Yadav was smarter and fasteracknowledging this as was Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal(United) which remains a part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliancecoalition. Purno Agitok Sangma screamed “bribery”; not that he was seriouslyexpected to occupy Rashtrapati Bhavan.  

It was not just the JD(U) that broke away from the NDA. TheShiv Sena in Maharashtra, which has been the BJP’s closest ideological ally fordecades on end, chose to cock a snook at its Hindu nationalist big brother.Could this have something to with the fact that the current President andBalasaheb Thackeray had a common friend who used to be India’s richest man(like his son at present)? No prizes for guessing the name of the tycoon. Whatwas perhaps more galling for the BJP was that its internal divisions wereexposed by the manner in which former Karnataka Chief Minister B SYeddyurappa’s supporters cross-voted.

It was small consolation for the BJP that the Biju JanataDal in Orissa supported the NDA’s Presidential candidate Sangma. As for theblow-hot-blow-cold relationship between the Nationalist Congress Party led bySharad Pawar and the Congress, the tensions evidently have more to do with thestrained relationship between the two in Maharashtra than with the AgricultureMinister’s position in the cabinet hierarchy. Till the turn of the millennium,many believed that coalition governments in India were an aberration of sorts,a temporary phase that would give way to single-party governments led either bythe Congress or the BJP. This line of thinking has now changed. For two decadesup to 2004, one of the most significant aspects of India’s polity was therelative decline of the Congress and the rise of the BJP. The 2004 generalelections saw the number of Congress MPs in the Lok Sabha go up for the firsttime since 1991; after two decades, the number of MPs owing allegiance to theBJP came down from 182 in 1999 to 138 in 2004.

The two largest political parties put together (withouttheir allies or coalition partners) got roughly half the votes cast insuccessive general elections that were held in 1996, 1998, 1999, 2004 and 2009.The remaining votes were cast in favour of dozens of political parties, some ofwhich have opportunistically switched allegiance between the UPA and the NDAcoalitions. The combined vote share of the Congress and the BJP (minus theirpre- or post-poll allies) actually shrunk by around 1.5 per cent between 2004and 2009.

In only six out of the country’s 28 states and in thenational capital is the electoral battle primarily between the two largestpolitical parties. There are states where either the Congress or the BJP is oneof the major political players, but the other is minor or insignificant. Suchstates include Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and some states of the north-east likeAssam. In Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, neither the BJP northe Congress can claim to be one of the poles of the polity.

From 1996 onwards, no government in New Delhi has beenformed by a single party – each government has been run by a coalition.Although two coalitions, the UPA and the NDA, dominate the polity, it would notbe accurate to describe India’s political structure as bipolar with smallerparties having no choice but to become appendages of either the BJP or theCongress. The present unpopularity of the incumbent regime is primarily aconsequence of two factors: the inability of the government to curb foodinflation and corruption. Most political observers will not be surprised ifboth the Congress as well as the BJP weakens after the next general elections.This would imply a more significant role for smaller parties, making nationalpolitics even more opportunistic – and unpredictable – than it is at present.The fragmentation of the Indian polity is far from over.


The writer is an independent journalist andeducator. His work experience, spanning 35 years, cuts across different media:print, radio, television and documentary cinema. 

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