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India after 2014 General Elections December 10, 2010

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Vikas Kumar

Mamata Banerjee, the union railways minister, is brazenly courting extreme left insurgents, who according to the Indian Prime Minister are the single biggest threat to the Indian state. The Congress Party that leads the coalition government at the Centre is overlooking these overtures because, in the forthcoming provincial assembly elections, Banerjee’s regional party is likely to end more than three decades of Left-rule in West Bengal. Also, the Congress is selectively using investigation agencies in terror cases purportedly involving close affiliates of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). By trying to incapacitate its national competitors, BJP and the Left Front, the Congress is jeopardizing its own interests as well as the Indian federal system, even though inadvertently. Its myopia is particularly puzzling given its comfortable electoral position. The Congress is all set to stage a comeback, howsoever modest, in Uttar Pradesh, the state which is crucial for BJP’s return to New Delhi, and West Bengal, the citadel of the Left. Also, provincial/ethnic parties will not be able to marginalize the Congress any further while the latter is quite likely to improve its tally in future assembly elections. Moreover, unlike the Congress, which has a stable leadership, other parties are struggling with leadership crisis due to either intra-party ideological struggles or succession struggles within reigning families headed by ageing patriarchs. Even the recent mega-corruption scandals have not seriously dented the brand Congress. In short, barring some bizarre development, the Congress will return to power in 2014 with a clear majority and that is when the Indian federal system will be severely tested.

One is reminded of the early 1980s, when provincial and ethnic conflicts erupted across the country after the Congress returned to power with a thumping majority following a brief spell of non-Congress rule. Lack of effective opposition drove people towards particularistic organizations to counter the threat of centralization under the Congress. This efflorescence of parochialisms severely strained Indian federalism and ended with the end of the Congress rule at the Centre. History is likely to repeat itself.

A Congress victory in 2014, the third successive victory in a decade, will confirm the return of one party rule in the Centre. By then ageing provincial/ethnic patriarchs would have been supplanted by young, inexperienced leaders who will face three options: (1) join the already crowded Congress bandwagon as yet another provincial/ethnic leader, (2) form a national coalition around BJP and/or the Left, and (3) give a parochial battle-cry. (The option of giving a parochial battle-cry in a province and joining the Congress-led alliance at the Centre is superfluous if as suggested above the Congress gets a majority of its own). This multi-party competition can support three outcomes: (1) infighting within the Congress intensifies due to competition from newcomers, (2) a grand opposition coalition emerges as a credible contender in 2019 or even before, and (3) a countrywide non-Congress alliance fails to materialize and provincial/ethnic parties fight independently.

The first two outcomes are innocuous for the federal system’s stability. The first outcome is associated with uncertainty for both provincial opponents of the Congress as well as its own provincial leaders. The latter will do all they can to keep the former out and if replaced they will try to occupy the vacuum created by the former’s entry into the Congress. If BJP and the Left continue to weaken at the current rate then the second outcome will be undermined by coordination problems. There are two reasons for this. First, neither of them will have an indisputable claim to the leadership of the non-Congress alliance. Second, they will need many more provincial/ethnic allies to challenge the Congress. Larger coalitions are not only more prone to instability but also present greater difficulties in balancing intra- and inter- provincial/community frictions.

Provincial party leaders being aware of the game of musical chairs that will follow the first outcome and the coordination problems associated with the second outcome will opt for the least harmful course of action for themselves. So, the third outcome is more likely than others. Young leaders of provincial parties are more likely than not to play the son-of-soil card and test the Centre’s limits of tolerance. In this they will be aided by Congress dissidents. One provincial/ethnic leader can kick-start a chain reaction. For instance, an isolated attack on Bihari migrant labourers in Assam or Maharashtra can trigger parochialism across the country. Fresh from a historic victory the Congress will not immediately attend to the problem because democratic leaders are not known to be proactive. But once the problem snowballs into simultaneous flowering of parochialisms across the country the Centre will be forced to take stern action and validate the claim that it is too overbearing. In short, the Congress’ attempt to marginalize its national competitors is likely to engender a hydra-headed enemy that would ultimately sap its strength.

So, the winter of 2014 is when the Congress will face the real challenge – to avoid resorting to undemocratic means to govern the people who democratically voted it to power and to refrain from undermining the federal system that provides its provincial/ethnic competitors with niches. In all fairness to the Congress, to a large extent this crisis will arise as an unintended side-effect of uncoordinated but rational voting decisions of individuals that happen to produce repugnant outcomes after aggregation. However, by following the current strategy the Congress is ensuring that BJP and the Left will not cooperate with it if and when the provinces explode. In any case, if the Congress fails to tackle the aforesaid challenge, a thirty year cycle of provincialism will be confirmed. The 1950s and 1980s were similarly marked by strong Congress governments at the Centre and (re-)birth of particularistic movements.

Vikas Kumar is an independent researcher based in Bangalore.

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