Alliances Not Leaders Will Decide Indian Elections

Public opinion polls indicate regional parties will be stronger after elections in India. So they may form government with Congress I's support — or force the BJP to drop Modi as prime ministerial candidate.

Posted on 02/11/14
By Arun R. Swamy | Via East Asia Forum
Sonia Gandhi waves to supporters at a rally. (Photo by Al Jazeera ENglish, Creative Commons License)
Sonia Gandhi waves to supporters at a rally. (Photo by Al Jazeera ENglish, Creative Commons License)

Political posturing in India has not changed since 1999, when there was a fascist party posing as a conservative one, and a royalist party posing as a liberal one. The posturing continues, but since then the Indian National Congress (INC) party has embraced coalition politics. And it may now be in a stronger position to attract allies than its rival, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

INC president Sonia Gandhi’s recent decision not to publicly project a prime ministerial candidate for the upcoming elections has met with disappointment in the party and derision outside. But Gandhi may be shrewder than her colleagues. With the two largest parties typically receiving only a little more than half the votes, the decisive contest between them is for the support of regional parties, not voters. In that contest the INC continues to have an edge — and publicly committing to a prime ministerial candidate would hinder their efforts.
Many authors describe the Bharatiya Janata Party as more ‘fascist’ than ‘fundamentalist’ — worrying less about ‘apostates’ than about ‘traitors’
As India’s ‘royalist’ party, the INC led the country to independence but is now viewed by many as the vehicle of the Nehru-Gandhi family — three generations of whom served as prime minister. It has been 25 years since the last Nehru-Gandhi prime minister Rajiv Gandhi lost power, but Indian commentators remain convinced that his widow Sonia, the party president since 1998, or their son, Rahul, will eventually take over. 

The INC’s rival, the BJP, is heir to the Hindu nationalist tradition, which became a significant national force in the 1980s, but has challenged the more inclusive Indian nationalism of the INC since the 1920s. Although the BJP appeals to religious conservatives and businesses, the party’s core ideology is ‘hard nationalism’ that emphasizes military strength and the need for minorities to assimilate. For this reason, many authors describe it as more ‘fascist’ than ‘fundamentalist’ — worrying less about ‘apostates’ than about ‘traitors’.


The BJP has oscillated for 25 years between mobilizing its core constituency through sectarian appeals, and appealing to the middle class and potential allies as a party of competence and probity. But the mobilization phases have produced acts of great violence. These include the destruction of a 16th-century mosque in 1992, and a large-scale pogrom against Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002. The BJP chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, was widely accused of turning a blind eye to the 2002 pogrom, which alienated the party’s regional allies. Both incidents temporarily made the party a political outcast, and even delayed the formation of its first government from 1996 to 1998 because regional parties initially refused to support it.


But the INC has had its own problems with regional parties. Regional parties usually competed with the INC, not the BJP, for state power. Moreover, in the 1990s some regionally-based factions chose to break away from the INC, forming new regional parties, rather than accept its continued domination by a clique surrounding Sonia Gandhi — a dynastic inheritance made more unpalatable by her Italian origins. Regional parties gravitated toward the BJP in 1998. Only when the INC accepted its need for coalition partners was it able to develop and maintain alliances. It then produced the first Indian government to last two full terms since 1989.


After 10 years, the INC-led United Progressive Alliance has been tarnished by corruption scandals, and the rapid economic growth of its first term has slowed. The INC was trounced by the BJP in December elections in several large North Indian states, while a new anti-corruption party took power in the state of Delhi. Recent opinion polls predict that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) — led by controversial Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi — will far surpass the UPA at the general election in May, falling just short of a majority


But expectations of a Modi government may be misplaced. Pre-election polls in both2004 and 2009 underestimated support for the UPA and overestimated support for the NDA. One reason is that the BJP’s support is stronger in urban areas, which are easier to poll, while the INC’s support is strongest among the rural poor — a constituency it has nurtured assiduously through anti-poverty programs. Also, India has a plurality electoral system with multiple parties. This makes it difficult to predict the breakdown of parliamentary seats, at least without knowing how parties are allied. Finally, in the last two elections, early warning signs gave the INC leadership an incentive to finalize pre-election alliances with regional parties, thus preventing a split in the anti-BJP vote.


The posturing of 1999 remains, but there have since been important changes in Indian politics. The INC has accepted coalition politics are here to stay — and, consequently, it is often in a stronger position to attract allies than is the BJP.


Polls indicate regional parties will be stronger after elections. So they may form government with INC support — or force the BJP to drop Modi.


Arun R. Swamy is Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Guam.

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