| Shadow and substance
The media give the miss to the base of the polity and focus on the superstructure. On election eve, the Ayarams and the Gayarams — along with the Ayisitas and the Gayisitas — monopolize the media. Their comings and goings are supposed to be earthshaking events, crucial to the fate of the nation for the next five years. Nothing of the sort. Once the Lok Sabha polls are over, these eminences will fade into unimportance, and the political map of India will be redrawn by ferments erupting in its vast hinterland.
The national parties, so-called, hog the headlines, but, should the trend already established in the course of the past decade gain further ground, they will henceforth play an increasingly minor role in the scheme of things. In the 1999 Lok Sabha polls, the duo of the major parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, between them failed to attract not even 45 per cent of the total valid votes cast. The rest of the electorate opted for the other registered “national” parties such as the Janata Dal in its different manifestations, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, besides the vast array of regional groups. What is equally significant, minor “national” parties, including the left, are themselves being gradually reduced to the status of regional presences.
In 1999, the two big parties, despite garnering an unimpressive share of aggregate votes, were still able to grab more than one-half of the Lok Sabha seats, 296 out of 543. Their luck is likely to run out soon. Consider the current state of realpolitik across the national chequer-board. The BJP is numero uno in only Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan; it has to defer to the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra; it is only the second party, trailing the followers of Mulayam Singh Yadav even in Uttar Pradesh, the epicentre of the cowbelt. In Bihar too, its lustre pales before Lalooji’s flexings.
Again in Punjab, the BJP leans against the space donated to it by the Shiromani Akali Dal, while in Andhra Pradesh, it is the loyal camp-follower of the Telugu Desam Party. In Tamil Nadu, following recent adjustments, it is acknowledgedly subservient to Madam Jayalalithaa’s whims.
Its tenuous hold on Goa and Jharkhand is complemented by a marginal existence in Assam and the rest of the North-east, where political allegiance is a product of conveniently shifting arrangements between major domos headquartered in New Delhi and local chieftains holding fort in the far fringes of the Himalayas. In Kerala and West Bengal, the party makes plenty of noise, but has little effective influence. And in Orissa, it is perforce the demure acolyte of Biju Patnaik’s progeny.
The lie of the land is hardly any better for the Congress. The only non-minor states where it is in power are Karnataka and Assam; its hold is rather tentative though in both. It has a chief minister in Maharashtra at the courtesy of the Nationalist Congress Party. In most other states, it plays second, third, fourth of fifth fiddle to others. In terms of seats in the Lok Sabha, it actually occupies the fifth position in UP, once the undisputed fief of the Nehru-Gandhis. In Kerala, while it heads the state government, it is in large measure a prisoner of the Indian National Muslim League and assorted Christian and Nair groups. In Andhra Pradesh, it has been made to kiss the dust and agree to form an electoral alliance with the Telengana Rashtriya Samithy. As for Tamil Nadu, the Congress has to reconcile itself to crumbs offered by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
Regional aspirations are discovering a tiger in their ranks. With corruption in the country attaining dizzy heights, money in circulation is aplenty, floating new political parties does not cause any strain, ideology is an irrelevance. There is an overlay of you-satisfy-me-and-I-will-satisfy-you sentiment in the ambience, and the big parties are realizing the hard way that their clout, particularly in poll time, is hostage to elements regarded as minions till the other day.
A few weeks are still left before nominations close for the Lok Sabha polls. Rest assured, the intervening time will be taken up by desperate attempts on the part of the two major parties to come to understandings with existing and emergent local and regional groups representing ethnic, linguistic or caste interests. The total picture likely to emerge is one of a chiaroscuro of electoral coalitions, with regional parties wangling the national parties into yielding them a relatively greater share of seats than they seemingly deserve. The bigger parties will be forced to yield to blackmail because they are not altogether sure of their own strength at the base in the different states.
The BJP and the Congress are for the present welcome to indulge as much as they wish in daydreams; the media will provide them with tidbits of illusion to embellish such dreams. The post-poll landscape however might unnerve them. From the manner the alliances are being negotiated and constituencies yielded to regional parties, come May 13, the Congress and the BJP could well discover that their share of the total votes cast has shrunk to 40 per cent or even less. Even worse, the number of seats won by the two principal parties together could be at most 250.
For the first time in India’s psephological history, the collective crowd of minor parties, mostly wedded to specific regional concerns, would claim a majority in the Lok Sabha, edging out the two principal parties.
Those hating to suspend disbelief can breathe again, the new government at the Centre is of course not going to be a concord of these regional formatives. As in 1999, they are likely to align with either the BJP or the Congress. The post-poll situation therefore promises to be another medley of confusion and hard bargaining; the minor parties would negotiate afresh with the two major parties either in turn or simultaneously, the nature of the negotiations depending on the degree of difficulty encountered in putting together a parliamentary majority.
For form’s sake, the prime minister would be from either of the major parties; the clout of the party presiding over the new government could however be pronouncedly less than what it has been in past administrations. If that comes to that, it might have to cede some of the major portfolios to junior partners, or be even persuaded to offer the posts of a couple of deputy prime ministers to outsiders agreeing to join the somewhat wobbly bandwagon. The regional parties would walk into national limelight, and, with them, the regions too. A further speculation is equally in order: odds are great that the national party which loses out to the other one in the race for power, overwhelmed by post-poll anti-hubris, might itself disintegrate into a number of regional entities.
The temptation to describe this as nature’s revenge is not easy to resist. The national freedom movement in the early decades of the 20th century had envisaged the emergence, following independence, of a federal India with authority concentrated in the federating states and the Centre enjoying only delegatory authority. Those to whom the British rulers transferred power in 1947 chose to forget this preamble of the freedom struggle; the bequest of the Indian empire, they assumed, was to govern exclusively from New Delhi.
It has taken the best part of half a century for the citizens of India to realize that, alongside of being Indians, they are also a conglomerate of several distinct nationalities marked by linguistic and ethnic heterogeneities. Such a nation can survive over the long run only if the Centre willingly sheds some of its powers and passes these on to the federating units. Were this process not to be voluntary, other forces would be at work. Both the BJP and the Congress are learning the hard way: they have to bow to the wishes of relatively weaker and disorganized political formations, or else calamity would strike.
Ironies of history reveal themselves in diverse ways. A federal India for all practical purposes, with optimal devolution of administrative, legal, economic and fiscal powers to regional groups, is being accepted as datum, for otherwise multi-party democracy would become non-functional. The compulsions of vote-gathering are compelling the major national parties to forsake the concept of a unitary, para-imperial centralized India in favour of a political framework criss-crossed by raucous oddities. To put it more overtly, the prerequisite of a democratic India, it is being stated as an axiom, is a decentralized India.
The prim set will be horrified: is not all this open invitation to chaos'