Election season begins in India

Aaradhana Jhunjhunwala
9 March 2009

The game of political marriages and separations is in full sway as India prepares for general elections next month. The three major national parties, the Indian National Congress (INC), the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Communist Party of India (CPI-M) have started courting smaller, regional parties for pre-poll alliances to bolster their prospects at forming the next central government. In this game of mixing and matching, foes turn friends easily, ideologies remain on the back burner and real ground issues hardly take centre stage.

Wrestling over Uttar Pradesh

In the populous northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party (SP), a member of the ruling INC-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has been in a deadlock with the INC regarding seat-sharing. The SP is dictating the terms of their pre-poll alliance as it decides which seats it will allow the INC to contest. After fighting assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh as a rival, the SP supported the INC during a crucial vote in Parliament last year, on the matter of India inking a nuclear deal with the United States.

Intending to claim its pound of flesh, the SP continues to keep the INC on its toes in Uttar Pradesh. On Sunday, the SP chief, Mulayam Singh Yadav announced he would only leave six seats for the INC to contest in Uttar Pradesh, ending all hopes of an alliance. The Indian Express and the Times of India wrote on Monday, quoting a senior INC leader, that the party would continue to remain open to a last minute poll alliance with the SP, signaling again why tactical political match-making may be more important than focusing on real issues in the run up to the elections. The Hindu seemed skeptical of any alliance between both parties as the INC wished to field as many as 24 candidates from Uttar Pradesh, many more than the six that the SP has agreed to set aside (the state elects 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha, India's equivalent of the United Kingdom's House of Commons).

A divorce in Orissa?

An eleven-year long coalition in the eastern state of Orissa came to an end after the local Biju Janata Dal (BJD) headed by Naveen Patnaik broke off ties with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).  The Indian Express reported on Monday that while the BJD had severed ties with the BJP, it continued to mislead political parties by claiming that it was still part of the NDA. The Livemint says Patnaik's claims are really empty words, but the right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the BJP's ideological mentor, has already started calling the BJD "anti-Hindu" and "minority-appeasing". Orissa was last year the scene of bloody clashes and riots, in which Hindu-chauvinist mobs targeted Christian villages.

The Times of India gave a similar report from Orissa and also said that the BJD was going to remain silent on whom it would ultimately ally with at the national level. The Telegraph seemed confident the BJD would swing towards favoring the CPI-M. Orissa elects 21 members of parliament to India's 545-strong Lok Sabha in the general elections, of which currently eleven are from the BJD. The Hindustan Times reported that the populist Nationalist Congress Party (not to be confused with the INC, from which it split) was also courting the BJD, a move that may imply an ultimate alliance with the UPA. BJD dumping the BJP will be costlier to the latter as it continues to fall behind the INC in its seat count in the run up to the elections.

Political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta summed up in his weekly column that the coming elections would not be about people or issues. Despite some talented politicians, the next elections, like the previous one, would succumb to the calculating game of forging alliances by hook or by crook. We're unlikely to see the development of a sound campaign platform, which focuses on the many challenges that lie ahead for the Indian state. In Mehta's words in The Indian Express: "It will be the peculiar dignity of this occasion that the voters will have the last word. Whether they will have the last laugh is another matter."

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