Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Evolution of the Polity

It is election fever in India. Not all of them are impressed. Some of my friends have threatened not to read my blogs if I am going to write too much about elections. One of my overseas friends jokingly said "Why couldn't they play cricket in India and export elections to South Africa?"

What can I say? For a person who tuned to CNN as the first channel he ever watched when cable TV came to his home over 14 years ago, who watched every Indian election with fascination and anticipation since 1990, who was thrilled with his timing of landing in the US in April 2000 because the Presidential elections were just round the corner, who stayed up late in 2004 to watch Kerry lose Ohio, and who woke up at 6 AM India time in 2008 (I usually wake up after 8) to watch the live coverage of the results of the US presidential election, not thinking of elections is just impossible.

As an active observer of Indian elections for nearly 20 years, I am struck by how the 2 party system in India has gradually given way to a multi-polar structure. As the BJP rose in prominence in the early 90s, the chatter was about the 'irrelevance' of the Left parties in the future. We imagined the 'era' of coalition governments to be temporary & that the polity would be clearly cleaved into 2 contrasting ideologies - the Left of Centre (Congress) and the Right of Centre (BJP).

But regional chieftans had other ideas. Mayawati & Mulayam hold fort in UP. Nitish Kumar, Lalu & Ram Vilas Paswan control much of Bihar. Naveen Patnaik is the gentle giant in Orissa while the Buddha continues to smile in West Bengal. 20 years ago, the seat sharing formula in Tamil Nadu was simple. Congress will contest much of the Lok Sabha seats while its Dravidan partner will contest much of the local Assembly elections. And both parties won. Today, the Congress must consider itself lucky if it could cross 10 seats in TN, UP & Bihar. And the outlook for BJP is no better.

The slicing & dicing of the electorate is now a fine art. We may cringe when western media outlets report on the caste system in India & consider the opinion as biased. But there are folks in India who want to keep the 'caste factor' alive. And they aim to please this small sub-set. And 'lock' the vote. Parties that aim to provide a pan-India perspective notice see their traditional support being chipped by these usurpers.

All of this is fascinating. And to an extent, worrisome. While plurality is always welcome in democracy, one also knows that too many cooks spoil the broth. It took Benjamin Netanyahu over a month to form a government in Israel. The top 2 parties in Israel today hold 55 seats. And the total number of seats in the Knesset? 120. We could be in a similar situation in India when the combined total of the 2 national parties that are on the opposing sides of a spectrum falls below the half-way mark (270).

It is my wish that whatever be the rainbow coalition that will be cobbled by the end of May, it lasts 5 years. Stability is the key to economic growth. And to a lot of other things. Elections are indeed fascinating. And they keep the junkie in me awake all night. But they are so only because they occur every 5 years. Let us keep it that way.

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