INDIAN domestic politics is on the verge of entering another era; one of confusion and uncertainty perhaps. It appears that the workable bi-coalition system, that ushered the vast multiethnic nation towards progress, is under increased threat. Federal power is getting diminished and has reached a stage of helplessness. And now further fragmentation looks ominous; signaling greater political ambiguity.
On the other hand, the right wing BJP is expecting some resurgence in the upcoming election utilising the anti-incumbency factor and riding on their new maestro Narendra Modi who, despite his controversial role in as chief minister in 2002 Gujarat riot, demonstrated success in development and consequently in the provincial elections. The BJP considers that he can evoke both hindutva emotion and developmental aspiration. Ironically, this has weakened the BJP-led NDA alliance with its second largest partner JD(U) of Bihar's popular Nitish Kumar, who quit on Modi issue. It also triggered a rift in the BJP top brass, too.
Indian democracy heralded a 'Dominant Party System' for first four decades after independence in 1947. Indian National Congress party was at the helm of that. The party has been almost perpetually led by Gandhi-Nehru political dynasty. Last two decades were marked by somewhat stable 'Coalition Politics.' National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by BJP and United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by the secular Congress gave some political stability to the worried Indians.
But the increasing polarisation of political entities coupled with emergence and reemergence of many new or old ones have engendered a fuzzy state of affairs in Indian political landscape. 'Third Front' is being talked about yet again. The quicksilver Mamata Banerjee is advocating for a 'Federal Front' and, surprisingly, found some support from BJD's Naveen Patnaik in Orissa and JDU's Nitish Kumar in Bihar.
The demise of the old Janata Dal, which had some trans-provincial appeal, has weakened the prospect of the restoration of a credible 'Third Front' which requires at least one clear trans-provincial party. There are already a 'Third front' and even 'Fourth Front.' Uttar Pradesh's Mulayam Singh Yadav's SP is the largest non-UPA, non-NDA party now. But due to its consistent provincial focus in the past, it is unlikely that other provincial parties would rally behind it for a longer haul.
There are coalitions of parties being formed in some of the provinces, and this trend is set to proliferate in coming days. The social stratifications along caste or language in provincial regions are being utilised by power hungry politicians for political mobilisation. Social cleavage or sub-identity rather than governance and development are taking the forefront in this division.
The danger in these complex developments is that the unifying thread of Indian social fabric might get weakened and India might become a less cohesive state. For neighbours like Bangladesh, which has no way to avoid its big neighbour, there would, in such case, be no credible central Indian authority to deal with. Political stalwarts of neighbouring Indian provinces would call the shots for their narrow political points, like Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal is doing, and Indo-Bangladesh relation would lose direction. The national parties do not have the courage to take on these regional outfits considering their own political regression domestically.
While the BJP is counting on the record and promises that the investment and developmental champion Narendra Modi brings to their fold, the Congress is repositioning itself as a pro-poor party focusing on social security schemes that had done the trick for them in the last election. Schemes for the rural poor, like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme (MGNRES), by the first UPA government attempted to implement the 'trickle-down' effect of economic growth and gained great support in the Indian countryside.
Despite financing issues, this UPA government also undertook a scheme called 'Food Security Scheme' aimed at providing food and fuel cost to poor Indians. It is to be seen whether this endeavour can carry the UPA-2 through in the coming national poll. UPA also lost important regional allies in last couple of years.
Meanwhile, the political fission continues. For example, in one of the large Indian provinces where there were traditionally two main parties, i.e. the Congress and the Telegu Desham, there are now four such entities with addition of YSR Congress and TRS. In Maharashtra, another key province with India's commercial nerve centre Mumbai, had the Congress and sometimes the old Janata Dal. Now there are Congress, NCP, BJP, Shiv Sena, MNS, all with electoral potential. Same is the case in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Bihar and some other places.
It's unlikely as of now that the Modi factor or the late 'Food Security Scheme' or Rahul Gandhi would be able reverse the fragmenting trends of Indian politics with four to five national level fronts already there or taking shape, and numerous smaller parties and their alliances rising at provincial level. For that to happen, there needs to be bigger and sustained stimulus, which is not on the horizon for foreseeable future.
So far, by and large, Indians had been somewhat successful in adapting to the new political and social landscapes. We hope they can do it again. The general sense that prevails in South Asia now is that a stronger central authority in New Delhi has greater chances to deliver for its people and for its neighbours. Now it is to be seen how things work out for India through the actions of the concerned stakeholders who have freedom of initiative, and how that impacts Indian domestic politics and the rest of us in South Asia.
The writer is an Associate Research Fellow in BIPSS. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org