The push-and-pull pluralism of Indian democracy

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"Rashtrapati Bhavan": The official residence of the President of India


By Grant Wyeth


Much of the focus of the 2014 Indian election campaign has been preoccupied with one or other of the two parties most likely to provide the next Prime Minister of India – the incumbent Congress and the ascendant BJP – and with the compelling upstart Aam Aadmi Party (the Common Man’s Party).


But neither of the two big national parties has been able to form a majority since 1989, a situation likely to be repeated when the last votes of the marathon ballot are finally cast on 12 May. There are currently another 36 other parties in the Lok Sabha (the Federal lower-house), and given that the idealistic AAP is unlikely to enter into a coalition with either Congress or BJP without a weighty shopping list of demands, these regional and minor parties will play a crucial role in shaping the next government. So who are some of the potential kingmakers?


Despite the humble origins of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate – and odds-on favourite ­–  Narendra Modi, who was a teenage chaiwalla, (tea vendor), his party still holds little appeal to vast numbers of lower-castes who dominate the populous “Cow Belt” of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Instead, two smaller parties that present themselves solely as champions of the “Backwards Castes” have come to dominate the seat-heavy region, much to the distress of the two national parties.


The Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) come largely free of ideology and policy. Their sole purpose is to use the caste groups they represent to gain access to the arms of state and provide the requisite patronages in order to maintain that access. This is achieved mostly through the allocation of quotas in education and government jobs for the Dalits, lower-castes and Muslims they seek to identify with.


Through the 1990s up until 2009 the largest political figure in Bihar was Lalu Prasad Yadav (Lalu). Lalu was considered a master of communal politics for his skilled manipulation of Bihar’s Yadav sub-caste and Muslim communities.


Lalu’s Rashtriya Janata Dal party is one of a number of parties that Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief of the Indian Express, has described as “povertarian.


While Lalu has been out of harm’s way since 2009 – fighting corruption charges, and serving less than 3 months of a 5 year prison sentence – Bihar has been experiencing above 10% growth, and has relegated West Bengal to the title of India's poorest state (GDP per capita).


The current Bihar Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United), has discovered that good governance and economic understanding, as opposed to manipulative populist rhetoric, can be a powerful vote-winner.


The Janata Dal recently ended its 17-year alliance with the BJP due to the promotion of the polarising Hindu nationalist Modi as the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate. Should Kumar’s popularity remain and the Janata Dal secure a large number of Bihar’s 40 seats, the removal of Modi as Prime Ministerial candidate may be a demand presented for their support, should the BJP fail to form government with its existing allies. 


Struggling West Bengal and progressive, wealthy Kerala in the south-west remain enthusiastic strongholds for Marxism even as it fades elsewhere in the world. There are two Communist parties in India: the Communist Party of India and The Communist Party of India (Marxist). The split came during the 1962 Sino-India War, with those who would form the CPI(M) supporting the Indian Government during the war, and the CPI supporting China.The CPI(M) have 16 seats in the Lok Sabha, and the CPI has four.


West Bengal has also elected two members from the Revolutionary Socialist Party, and a further two seats are currently held by the All India Forward Bloc, whose founder Subhas Chandra Bose, was so enthused by the national socialism of the Germans in the early 1940s that he tried to encourage them to invade India to expel the British. When the Nazis didn’t prove keen, he turned to the Japanese.


There is also a Maoist-Leninist organisation in India, but they prefer bullets to ballots. They control significant areas of land in Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Bihar, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh and have already been actively intimidating (killing) voters this election.


While the BJP attempts to temper its perceived Hindu chauvinism in order to appeal to a wider section of the public, it says a lot about the party that their most staunch ally is the Marathi extremist party, the Shiv Sena, whose violence initially against south Indians, and now against migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, exposes them as brutal thugs and significantly hampers Mumbai’s cosmopolitan and global ambitions. 


The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) is aTamil Nadu-based party that once had the objective of forming a separate Dravidian State.  The DMK quit the current United Progressive Alliance government after the coalition supported a UN resolution on Sri Lanka that the DMK considered not strong enough.


A tough stance on Colombo’s treatment of its Tamil minority will also be an issue for any alliance formed with Tamil Nadu’s other major party, the softer, but still nationalist All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). The AIADMK are currently in power in Chennai and is headed by the former film star Jayalalitha, who is referred to in the state simply as Amma (Mother, or respected female elder).


These regional issues will also play a significant role in gaining the support of the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, who came to power in the state after 34 years of CPI(M) rule. The sibling squabbling between West Bengal and Bangladesh, currently over issues of water, may make the party influential in the new government’s regional policies, should the Trinamool Congress choose to ally with it.


This is the push and pull of pluralism of India. It may be messy and unproductive, but with an increasingly inept Congress Party unable to bind the country, and the lack of another pluralist national option (potentially the AAP?), it provides some political voice to the country’s grand diversity.


Whether or not this can provide a stable coalition that can begin to address India’s significant problems, and promote its vast potential, will be seen in the weeks following the declaration of the results on 16 May.


Grant Wyeth is Melbourne-based freelance writer with a keen interest in India, where his is currently travelling and following the election: @grantwyeth