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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 20, May 2, 2009

Electioneering in India: No Agenda for the Common People

Saturday 2 May 2009, by Sitaram Kumbhar


One should not be surprised at last election’s spat and the present spat between the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, and the UPA chairperson, Sonia Gandhi, because these are not new to Indian politics. A close assessment of the election campaign in India suggests that the genuine issues of the common people are routinely left out of the election campaigns (if not manifestos) of the political parties due to electoral compulsion. The political parties use such issues which have the capacity to garner maximum vote by misleading the people on some of the substantive issues of concern. This is due to the growing competitive character of the Indian elections that is the outcome of regionalisation of national politics. It is a fact that contesting and winning elections have become a very costly exercise. Today political parties need numbers to win election. All political parties (barring a few) are looking for alliances to win elections. And to win elections, leaders are disregarding moralistic posturing about clean public life.

The bipolar multiparty system in national government formation is likely to face decline, as many other major political parties have advanced the idea of a “Third Front”. It is a new phenomenon in Indian national politics that the parties from the Left are going for pre-poll arrangements and understandings to contest elections. Historically, the Left political parties usually extended issue-based support to some of the secular parties. This perhaps reflects the willingness of the Left political parties to play a major role in the formation of the Central Government. However, the pre-poll alliance with parties like the Biju Janata Dal is ‘pragmatically political’ because the BJD’s economic policies are diametrically opposite to that of the Left parties.

In this paper I argue that to win elections the political parties are looking for pre-poll alliances. This is not to suggest that the alliance partners have any concrete common agenda on the basis of which they would go to the voters and seek their support. There is no agenda of change for the common masses and the country at large.

The non-developmental or non-economic issues will decide the fate of the approaching elections. If the alliance building would have been on the basis of an agreed common agenda it would have been good for Indian democracy in the long run. Without an ideology and leadership no radical change is possible in the country in the foreseeable future. Regional factionalism, chauvinism and opportunism will be replicated at the level of the Central Government. Coalition building at the Central level is likely to be reduced to mere distribution of portfolios among alliance partners. State politics will acquire more and more retributive character.

The matter is not whether or not Sonia Gandhi called Narendra Modi and his followers “liars, betrayers and merchants of fear and death” and Modi defended and justified the killings and fake encounters of people, and declined to apologise for the Godhra riots, but to which direction Indian democracy is heading at this juncture. There is no doubt that India is one of the largest democracies in the world but that is purely in its procedural form without adding substantive meaning to it. It has sustained democracy after political independence in 1947 but it is not acquiring gradual maturity that an old democracy should acquire and not achieving some of the substantive values of democracy.

Perhaps the accumulated experiences of the past prompt the political leaders to go for issues other than development of the country or general well-being of the people. The vote-fetching capacity of sensational issues is higher than the number of votes issues relating to broad-spectrum welfare and development can garner. Simply canvassing with moderate issues can hardly help the political parties win requisite seats to form governments either in the State or at the Centre. Therefore, the political parties prefer non-developmental issues for canvassing.

If at all any political party wishes to win the elections by using genuine issues of the common people it has to fulfil certain conditions; otherwise the party aggressively employing communal issues in the electoral campaign will find it easy-going as had happened in the Gujarat elections of December 2007. The communal party which has reached a minimum threshold in terms of support of the people with a committed troop of cadres can easily win the elections unless the party is facing a general mood of anti-incumbency against it. Therefore, Modi easily won by communally polarising the voters in Gujarat. Thus, a party with a strong cadre base can use genuine issues of development and issues of the common people and encash on them because the cadres help the party to directly reach the people. However, it is gibberish to say that a well-performing government in power can actually return to power with a majority, or even with the same numbers it had in previous elections of its own in a multicultural society like ours. This is primarily because non-developmental issues decide elections in India. The sudden emergence of different regional political parties and their remarkable performance is a testimony to it. It is a fact that often local issues decide the election outcomes. In the course of time the Indian election is becoming unpredictable.

These uncertainties are making different political parties, both regional and national, impatient. In this process they are desperately looking for allies. The national political parties are in a state of decline in this process of coalition-building because the regional political parties are increasingly influencing government formation at the Centre. This has forced the national political parties to look for State-level allies. Earlier the political parties were contesting elections on their own without searching for allies. They were going for allies in the post-election situation. The pre-election alliances are something new to Indian democracy which in the long run might not come to the advantage of the different national political parties. The national political parties will lose their support base among the people and eventually become less influential in the formation of the Central Government.

BUILDING a grand rainbow coalition means giving space to regional political parties. This experiment started with the NDA. This has already given a significance space to the regional political parties in the formation of the Central Government. This process is giving birth to aspirations among local leaders to become Ministers in the Central Government and forming political parties of their own and working hard for the purpose. Therefore, the regional political parties are growing in number. It is becoming difficult for the national political parties to win elections on national issues because in this process the local/sub-national issues would have the upper hand over national issues of importance because people respond to local issues first. In this process electioneering in India has become very competitive.

Many scholars rightly argue that the negligence of local/regional issues gave birth to the regional political parties. The national political parties could not fulfil the regional aspirations and more particularly the aspirations of the regional leaders of the party who had huge support base at the State level. Power struggle within the party and inability of the regional leaders to find the rightful place in the party led to defections from the Congress and eventual decline of the Congress party. The Congress system could not control the discontentment within the party for long leading to its demise. The contribution of lack of inner-party democracy and personalisation of the party in the decline of the Congress system cannot be overlooked. It is very hard on the part of the Congress party to actually get back the depleted cadre base.

The first and foremost capital of a political party is the party cadres and discipline in the party. The cadres are the genuine navigator of the party to success. The party can win elections on genuine issues of the people if the party with a strong cadre base at the grassroots level is highly embedded with the people. If the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh achieved remarkable success in the last Assembly elections, it is because the party has strong and committed grassroots activists who worked hard days and nights, not merely because of “social engineering” as many would believe. If it was mere social engineering which helped the BSP, why couldn’t the BJP and the Congress party emulate the same and achieve the same success that the BSP achieved? They simply cannot, because they have no ideology, no leadership and, above all, no committed party cadre at the grassroots level which is the navigator of success of any political party. (Perhaps this is more true in the case of the Congress than the BJP.) Most of the political parties have got deinstitutionalised and individualised. Even individualised political parties can win elections provided they have a committed cadre base. The growing competitive character of the Indian elections has forced the political parties for ‘ethnic head-counting’ and to disregard the genuine issues of the general masses.

The author is an Assistant Professor in Political Science, Shyamlal College, University of Delhi.

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