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April 13, 2009
Small parties are big players in India’s upcoming elections

India is scheduled to hold elections on April 16.

India, the world’s largest democracy, is scheduled to begin its multi-stage parliamentary elections on April 16. Neither of the country’s two major parties, the Congress party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are expected to gain a majority, meaning India is likely headed for another coalition government.

Mahima Kaul is a freelance reporter based in Delhi who has written for The Indian Express. She explains how India’s political landscape has changed over the past several decades, as political support has fragmented and smaller parties have become more influential.

Election fever has peaked here in India. You cannot escape it — even local pastry shops are baking goodies in the form of party symbols. This is typical of the fanfare and celebrations that engulf the country as political parties, their numbers increasing every day, chase the Indian voter.

But to understand the real significance of how India votes, one needs turn back the clock a little. India’s particular brand of democracy has gone through many changes over the past 60 years. It is a parliamentary system, much like the British, and every five years national elections are held and the party with the most seats forms the government.

Simple enough. And it was, when the Congress party was the single largest party in the country. But in the 1970s, the political landscape of the country started to change. Smaller political players began to move to the center stage, and by the 1990s, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in particular had grown in stature. Regional players began to flex their electoral muscles. This led to the system of government India has today — grand coalitions forming the government, with either the Congress party or the BJP leading it.

Over the years, the Congress party has steadily been losing ground in individual states, with regionalism trumping national concerns. Small state parties can hold the national government ransom because of the need for coalitions.

Political scientists have tried to decipher the mind of the Indian voter over the years. Overwhelmingly, votes are cast on the basis of identity; along religious or caste lines. That is why many members of parliament — and even chief ministers — have been voted back to power despite their obvious corruption and non-performance. Indian elections must be viewed through this prism.

This brings us to 2009. It is an enormous task to explain the internal dynamics of Indian politics because the number of players keep increasing by the day.

Some basics: The Congress leads the UPA  (United Progressive Alliance) government, backed by smaller players that once included the Left (Indian communists). When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed a nuclear deal with President Bush, the Left objected very strongly, and ultimately withdrew support from the government. This led to a “trust vote” in parliament where the UPA had to prove its majority.

What happened then was shocking and revealed the underbelly of Indian politics. The Congress-led government, allegedly, began to buy votes. BJP members brought, on live television, suitcases filled with wads of cash as “proof” that the Congress party had tried to buy support. The nation was disgusted with the blatant display of corruption.

Not much later, the terror attacks in Mumbai revealed that while Indian politicians had been horse-trading and making money, the real work of a government — for instance, securing the borders — had been woefully neglected. Anger against the entire political establishment only grew, because successive governments — be they Congress or BJP-led — have not taken these concerns seriously.

With polling beginning in only a few days, it is widely believed in the country that no party, including the Congress, will get a majority. Another coalition will be formed after the numbers are crunched. Opportunistic alliances will be made. Some of the larger regional players have also formed the Third Front; a credible threat to the UPA and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

Bookies all over the country seem to think that the present government, under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will continue. However, if that happens, the Congress will undoubtedly need the support of smaller parties to prove a majority in the house.

The refreshing electoral trend this time is that a number of urban professionals have decided to contest key metropolitan seats as independents, signaling that perhaps urban India is done voting for morally bankrupt political parties. Right now, democracy is a numbers game. Parties with no common ideology will come together to form a coalition if it means sharing power at the center. Then comes governance.

The hope young India has for itself is that it can change the country’s priorities by greater participation. Let us see how it votes.

– Mahima Kaul

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user hunger artist under a Creative Commons license.

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