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Coalitions and Elections

ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL WEEKLY Coalitions and Elections On the surface, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) appears to have emerged stronger in the elections in the four states and union territory of Pondicherry, which in several respects constituted a critical

Coalitions and Elections On the surface, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) appears to have emerged stronger in the elections in the four states and union territory of Pondicherry, which in several respects constituted a critical “third test” – after Maharashtra in December 2004, and Haryana, Jharkhand and Bihar (twice) in 2005 – since the Congress-led coalition assumed office in Delhi in May 2004. The biggest gains, however, have been made not by the Congress but by crucial supporters and constituents of the alliance – essentially the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). The Congress Party, thus, will now have to learn to work better with its coalition partners. Unlike the previous rounds of state elections that were very much straight contests between the UPA and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), this time the NDA was a minor player other than in Assam. (The Bharatiya Janata Party in any case has emerged with little in Assam, lost what little it had in Tamil Nadu and once again drawn a blank in Kerala.) If there is a loser in these polls it is arguably the Congress. Its limited victory in Assam and gains in Tamil Nadu cannot neutralise the complete defeat the party faced in Kerala and its virtual marginalisation in West Bengal. In Assam, the party, considerably weakened and forced into a coalition, will just about manage to hold on to power, and in Tamil Nadu, it has ridden to power on the coat-tails of the DMK. The challenge in the months ahead then will be more of how the Congress works with its coalition partners and supporters outside, than how the UPA deals with the inchoate external threat of the NDA. As with recent elections, conducted under the aegis of Election Commission (EC), these were a rigorously monitored and a carefully calibrated exercise. The high polling percentages recorded in all the states are proof of both the seriousness with which the electorate has exercised its rights as well as of the EC discharging its responsibilities fairly and effectively. The efficiency and violence-free elections witnessed in recent years, however, not only highlight the EC’s role as a vital pillar of democracy, they have also conversely ensured that elections now constitute a distinct and separate process of democracy itself. Political parties, as distinct from the governments they help form, are increasingly shaping themselves to form smooth, well-run organisations, focused more on developing strategy, shaping coalitions as well as contesting elections. It was an inability to appear as a coherent political grouping that proved the Asom Gana Parishad’s (AGP) failing in Assam, which made it unable to capitalise on the poor record of the Congress government. With factionalism and the presence of a breakaway group led by former leader, Prafulla Mahanta, the AGP could do little to extend its appeal beyond its support base formed largely of the Asomiya, Hindu vote. The Congress, for its part, continues to rely on the support of three main groups, the Muslims, different ethnic groups and also the tea garden workers (largely santhals), whose very vulnerability makes them a strong support base of the party. The newly formed Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF) did make some headway into the Congress’ Muslim base by winning 10 seats. But while minority polarisation could become a force in future elections in the state, the BJP’s Hindutva card, unleashed in recent years by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s vitriolic campaign, came a cropper and was perhaps diluted by the AGP’s attempt to rejuvenate itself. Coalition arithmetic decided the outcome in Tamil Nadu, although in the early phase of the campaigning it seemed that the Jayalalithaa-led All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) had, with its sweeping welfare measures and supposedly efficient management of the post-tsunami and post-floods efforts in 2005 and 2006, overcome the arithmetic that had ensured the party’s rout in 2004’s Lok Sabha polls. In the end, the desertion by Vaiko’s Murumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam from the DMK alliance did not help the

AIADMK and the people of Tamil Nadu decided neither to forgive Jayalalithaa for her authoritarianism nor forget the extremely harsh measures she imposed in the first half of her tenure. The emergence of a Congress-supported DMK minority government in the state and the presence of a reasonably strong AIADMK in the opposition benches will hopefully ensure better governance from the DMK, which now resembles more a family business empire than the mass cadre party it was in the 1960s and 1970s championing the cause of Tamil sub-nationalism.

The Left Front secured its seventh successive electoral victory in West Bengal. With the EC ensuring the freest of all possible polls, the Left’s victory has squashed all rumours about the party maintaining its hold on Bengal much like how Laloo Yadav managed to win election after election in Bihar during the 1990s. The Left Front victory could in part be attributed to the party, under Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, going beyond its largely rural support base and securing the urban, middle class vote.

The outcome in Kerala was perhaps expected. It was not the post-1982 pattern of alternating power between the Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the United Democratic Front (UDF) that made the LDF’s win inevitable, but more the misgovernance and corruption scandals that dogged the inept UDF government throughout its tenure. The Congress-led coalition had so little going for it that it could not gain even from the initial dissension and squabbles within the CPI(M) in Kerala. The LDF in Kerala is, however, quite unlike the Left Front in West Bengal. The CPI(M), the main constituent, has been riven by factionalism and personality clashes that are masked as ideological differences and which may tell on governance.

Coalition arrangements, as these elections and those conducted since the 1990s have demonstrated time and again, have come to stay in the Indian political scene. It remains to be seen whether a coalition government will indeed ensure decisive governance – as the Left Front has shown is possible in West Bengal and the LDF too has in the past in Kerala. More and more, it appears, elections and even governance in India will be based on aspects of voter arithmetic, the exercise of give and take, and a careful framing of manifestos. EPW

Economic and Political Weekly May 13, 2006

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