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Polls apart

Our political parties have been facing ‘continuous assessment’ for the past two decades.

Written by Suhas Palshikar | Published: November 4, 2013 3:28:10 am

Our political parties have been facing ‘continuous assessment’ for the past two decades.

The disjunction between parliamentary elections and state elections calls for considering its effect on political parties. The parties that have all-India ambitions find themselves in a continuous election mode. State parties that are partners in a national-level coalition are also drawn into this continuous election mode. Thus,our political parties have been facing ‘continuous assessment’ for the past two decades.

The parliamentary elections of 1989 occupy a special place in India’s electoral history. They firmly ushered in the post-Congress polity. When the Lok Sabha polls take place in 2014,we shall have lived for a quarter of a century in the post-Congress era. In this phase,our politics has taken a new turn. There is now continuous popular assessment of parties,coupled with an emphasis on performance. Both are welcome features at first glance,but they might end up as shackles for our electoral democracy.

The post-Congress polity brought about a “multiparty” system. It also disrupted,almost permanently,the rhythm of parliamentary and assembly elections. The multiparty system has received some attention,but the second phenomenon is rarely discussed.

Starting from 1952,parliamentary and assembly elections had coincided for a decade and a half. This allowed for the gigantic exercise called the general elections. This cycle was disrupted after 1967,when the multiparty competition first made its appearance on the political scene. As Samyukta Vidhayak Dal governments failed to complete their terms,state after state went for mid-term assembly elections. The electoral cycle was somewhat restored in 1972 and later in 1977-78,but soon,most states evolved their independent electoral cycles. First in 1979-80 and then since 1989,the Lok Sabha’s failure to complete its term also meant that the electoral cycle almost ceased to exist.

Let us take a quick look at the elections between two Lok Sabha polls — 2009 and 2014. Only three states will elect their state assemblies along with the Lok Sabha polls: Andhra Pradesh,Odisha and Sikkim. Yet 2013,the “pre-election” year,will have witnessed as many as nine assembly elections. Assuming that parliamentary elections take place in April-May 2014,the next 12 months after that are to witness another six assembly elections. This means that in a period of 34 months,we shall have 18 assembly polls as well as the Lok Sabha elections.

This originally evolved from the fact that during the late-1980s and the ’90s,many state governments failed to complete their five-year terms. In later years,this failure stemmed from multiparty competition translating into hung assemblies,quickly formed coalitions and the absence of durable patterns of party competition. In a sense,therefore,the disjunction between parliamentary elections and state elections is inevitable. But it also calls for considering its effect on political parties. The parties that have all-India ambitions,at least,find themselves in a continuous election mode. State parties that are partners in a national-level coalition are also drawn into this continuous election mode. As we know,there are very few parties which do not fit into either of these two categories. Thus,our political parties have been facing “continuous assessment” for the past two decades,if not more.

There seems to be a general neglect of this trend and the effect it may be having on parties. It may sound ironic,but while parties must get popular approval,having to seek a mandate so often (from different electorates) reduces them to cynical election machines. A typical party leader would be hopping from one election to another without pausing to build the organisation,train the cadre,strengthen party coffers,imagine new policies or work among newer social sections. In other words,a party can only think of the ad hoc,the contingent and the immediate. Much of the half-baked populism and manipulative politics that one witnesses has its origins in this crazy T20-like situation.

But this also means that every party has a fragmented view of its campaign and tailors its programme statements to suit the state-level electorate. This leads to political competition becoming more state-specific. A Congress fighting a losing battle in Gujarat and a Congress confronting a tattered opposition in Karnataka cannot even think of a coherent policy or strategy. It is forced to project two different images and different sets of leaders,and to speak different languages of performance and governance.

This draws attention to another irony of our contemporary politics: ever since the late 1990s,the language of bijli-sadak-pani has become commonplace. It is now said,and with some relief,that rather than identity and other evocative issues,our elections are increasingly about these basics and their delivery. However,the bijli-sadak-pani discourse almost entirely elides the issue of larger policy or perspective. Governance and performance have come to occupy a crucial place in electioneering and in analysing election outcomes. While these are indeed important parameters,the more fundamental function of democratic competition — to throw up a contest of ideas,policies and visions — is lost.

This feature has emerged both in spite and because of the multiparty competition that is characteristic of the post-Congress polity. In principle,the rise of many parties with the potential to share power should produce a more competitive policy discourse. Instead,that possibility has become weak because of multiparty competition. With the emergence of the multiparty format,two related things happened. One was the rise of coalition politics and the other was a multilevel sharing of power by the political players. We know about coalitions and the compulsions they impose on parties. But the other development also needs to be examined. At any given time,the majority of political parties (the real ones,not the registered ones — let us say,the majority of recognised parties) happen to share power,either at state level or at the Central level or both. This disincentivises genuine policy competitiveness and encourages the language of performance and governance.

Among the major players today,the DMK,TDP,Shiv Sena,RJD,BSP and AGP can be said to be outside the current power grid. But a quick look will tell us that most of them are mired in their own problems or are in the political wilderness rather unwillingly (as in the case of the DMK or the RJD). As such,it is unlikely that these political parties would infuse any new thinking into the realm of policy or perspective. The rest are already ensconced in power and too blinkered by the burden of continuous electoral scrutiny. Therefore,everyone chooses to restrict the political contest to performance. As the parliamentary election approaches,we might have more statistics,more wit,more fireworks,but the competition is likely to be characterised less by political substance.

The writer teaches political science at the University of Pune

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