Brokering a third way

The elections in India are coming up, and it’s promising to be an interesting one. Polls from this summer suggested that a hung parliament is likely. That’s significant but not a majority of support to either the hyperconservative National Democratic Alliance (NDA, which is dominated by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which is rooted in Partition-era politics) or the centrist United Progressive Alliance (UPA, which is dominated by the Indian National Congress (INC), which grew out of the self rule movement of the early twentieth century). There’s a variety of ways of looking at this, but one that seems worth noting is that perhaps India is moving beyond coalitions built around parties that grew out of what were originally service organizations that were powerfully shaped by political and social forces of a very specific time period that’s passed.

There’s of course the clear possibility that either of those groups can reinvent themselves in what seems to be a new political era that’s emerging. After all, they’ve done that before. The INC had its leader, Indira Gandhi, essentially declare herself something of a dictator in the mid-1970s and now has branded itself as the true progressive force in India politics (while its current President is Indira Gandhi’s daughter-in-law). The BJP has its origins in the murky underworld of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) which planned to assassinate moderate Hindus during Partition (and did assassinate Mohandas Gandhi, yes, that Gandhi) but reinvented itself during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency as a core part of the comparatively pacifist and widely inclusive protest movement that created the modern BJP. If any two parties can effectively weather declining national interest, it’s these two that have already rebuilt themselves several times over.

But with a “mini-general election” for the country’s lower parliamentary house (Lok Sabha) being held in several important states over the course of the next month and a half beginning a week from today, it’s unclear that they can remake themselves in time to maintain governmental control. At first glance the map of district holding regular votes for the Lok Sabha might seem too geographically concentrated to give a very good idea of the political fortunes of the BJP and INC (and hence NDA and UPA coalitions), but that’s precisely the point, actually.

(The elections scheduled before the end of this year are in five states marked in blue.)

The unrepresented South and Center-East overwhelmingly vote for for local parties outside of the BJP-INC rivalry, and are expected to do so in their elections (which will be held in the early spring). Delhi has for the past decade been solidly in INC control, while Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have been the base of the BJP in the north if not the country as a whole for much of that time as well. If any of those three slip out of their current party governments’ control, it’s a powerful sign of how fragile that party (or both) have become.

The remaining two districts aren’t bastions of either party, but are interesting indicators in their own ways. Rajasthan (marked with the red one) is something of a swing state, with lengthy periods of effective rule by the INC and other periods of highly popular BJP dominance. If the INC maintains power there, that’s a significant bargaining chip for them among other parties, but it’s an even more attractive prize for the BJP. A third party victory is unlikely, but it will likely impact third party attitudes.

Mizoram (marked with the red two), on the other hand, is much like many parts of the East and South of India in that there’s a sizable contingent of local parties that oppose both the INC and BJP. It should be interesting to see if Mizo Popular Front, for instance, surges ahead of the INC and gains control. Something similar happened in the neighboring state of Tripura in 1993, and local, unaligned parties have since remained in power. There’s also a small, local election in Tamil Nadu (in the far south), which might be revealing about similar developments there as well, but since it’s an unusual special election as well as local, it’s not necessarily very representative.

In any case, the outcomes in these upcoming elections are expected to be unfavorable to either the UPA or NDA forming a government in 2014. With outside parties already making their limits or requirements for forming a coalition with the UPA clear, we may in fact see the UPA reborn with more socialist and progressive parties joining it, and driving it to the left on economic issues. Not to get too far ahead here, but we might see a huge political change taking place in India soon.

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