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Parties and Politics

Subrata Mukherjee | New Delhi |

The trend of minority parties gaining a majority in the Lok Sabha and the legislative assemblies began with the very inception of Indian democracy.

In the first General Election, Nehru’s Congress received 43 per cent of the votes but had an overwhelming majority in the Lok Sabha and legislative assemblies.

Mavalankar’s diktat was that to be recognised as the Opposition would presuppose 10 per cent of the seats.

This was rooted in the anxiety to ensure a two-party system.

At that point of time, this was regarded as the inevitable consequence of following the first-past-the-post system as had happened in the USA, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

However, Mavalankar’s optimism was not fulfilled. When the system of one-party dominance was challenged and gradually suffered erosion, a fragmented party system emerged.

This led to a quirky situation ~ even candidates with one per cent of the votes, won and became ministers.

The first phase of the decline of Congress domination led to a struggle for power between Congressmen and exCongressmen resulting in an unstable period of transition.

Ex Congressmen, pre-eminently VP Singh, Chandra Sekhar and Inder Gujral became Prime Ministers. After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, the Congress had to settle somewhat uneasily for the Narasimha Rao regime.

Facing the wrath of Sonia Gandhi who had propelled and supported opponents like Arjun Singh, it was a miracle that he completed his term despite having to lead a minority party in the Lok Sabha.

Sonia’s taking charge of the Congress energised the party but its weaknesses were clearly manifest.

The contrary position of the Congress in Pachmari, especially to go it alone, had emitted mixed signals to parties which otherwise would have been natural allies of the Congress.

The BJP is the only party that did not emerge out of the Congress. It suffered a humiliating defeat in the 1980 Lok Sabha elections when it secured only two seats and with all its stalwarts defeated.

The CPI-M and the breakaway faction of the Congress ~ Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul ~ softened their stand vis-a-vis the BJP ending the latter’s isolation and it became an alternative to the Congress ideologically at a time when the party was grappling with the post-liberalised economy by abandoning the Nehruvian state-dominated socialistic pattern of the economy.

However, even at that time Vajpayee’s BJP was perceived as another variant of the Congress. It appeared that only a Congresslike system could work in India.

The Vajpayee regime with a weak Congress as opposition, emboldened the BJP leadership. It advanced the date of the 2004 elections as it was convinced of its victory.

The BJP’s campaign of “shining India” and Advani’s assertion that the BJP, like the Conservative Party in Britain, was the natural party of governance was believed to be the true recipe of success.

The 2004 election defeat was a shocker for the BJP and the exit of Vajpayee allowed a weak Congress to continue and win the next election also under the divided leadership of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh.

The latter lacked legitimacy as he was neither a seasoned politician; nor could he nurture a constituency of his own. Right through his years as the Prime Minister he was a Rajya Sabha member from Assam, and this ran counter to the convention that a Prime Minister should be a Member of the Lok Sabha.

From 2004 to 2014, Rahul was projected as a person waiting to take over the mantle of his party.

His abilities remained untested and the result was the party’s humiliating defeat in 2014, securing only 19 per cent of the votes while the BJP won 31 per cent, 12 percentage points more than the Congress.

The factors that led to the debacle of the Congress were never seriously analysed. Apart from corruption and alleged policy paralysis, the Congress overplayed the card of identity politics.

Manmohan Singh’s assertion that Muslims have the first claim to the nation’s resources neither helped the community economically nor did it help the party to consolidate its position politically.

The paradigm shift in Indian politics was more because of a rudderless Congress than to a resurgent BJP as a national alternative. Narendra Modi championed the cause of development and national identity.

In the recent Assembly elections in five states, attention was riveted to Uttar Pradesh because the state sends 80 members to the Lok Sabha and a victory in UP would mean a victory at the Centre. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee’s statement, India that is Bharat that is Uttar Pradesh, sums up its pivotal position.

The BJP’s spectacular victory has thrown up the serious limitations of identity politics. Both Mayawati’s BSP and Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party have oscillated in power with a core vote-share of 20 per cent each.

This had created an illusory biparty system in the state. The BJP had a vote-share of 42 per cent in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and 40 per cent in the 2017 Assembly elections, a drop of 2 percentage points.

In the 2012 Assembly elections, the BJP had 16 per cent votes which has increased to 40 per cent in 2017. Identity politics has its inherent limitations and our political process is moving away from it.

Both the SP and BSP were partisan and oligarchic and not in tune with the aspirations and expectations of mainstream voters.

The support base of both the parties being limited, they could not meet the challenge of a larger well organised juggernaut, the BJP, with a larger issue-based perspective.

Akhilesh’s gamble of aligning with the Congress did not inspire confidence as the party in UP was busy retaining its pocket boroughs in Amethi and Rae Bareli.

Demonetisation and not fielding a single Muslim candidate was offset by BSP fielding a disproportionate share of Muslims which helped the BJP to consolidate its majoritarian base and placate many non Yadav OBCs who in a normal issueless election would have gone to the SP.

It is fairly certain that even if Narendra Modi had not carried out an aggressive campaign, the BJP victory was a certainty.

His campaign could have been more graceful had he avoided unnecessary references to the burning ghat and a burial ground and Harvard and hard work.

To secure a massive majority is an achievement but its consequences are uncertain. Rajiv Gandhi received 49 per cent of the votes in the 1984 national elections. In 2015, AAP secured more than 50 per cent votes in Delhi.

But within a year, the euphoria evaporated.

The biggest gain in the recently concluded elections is the phenomenal rise of undecided voters, who defying their group identities, voted according to their judgement.

The age of mature voting has arrived in India and all political leaders and parties are on notice. Perform or perish is the new reality.

The BJP has emerged as a pan-Indian party. The Congress is down but not out. It won Punjab on its own strength.

However, the further decline of the Congress is worrisome as this would weaken the foundations of our democracy.

A serious introspection is necessary for the Congress about its present dynastic leadership which has failed to deliver.

Ever since he took over as vice-president of the party, Rahul Gandhi has lost 17 elections.

Another matter of concern for our democratic process is the anxiety of the BJP to grab power by any means, as has happened in Goa and Manipur.

A strong and stable party system still eludes us.

The writer is former Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Delhi.