Monday, April 15, 2024

Harmonise the National interest with the regional aspirations


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By Anirudh Prakash

It is a worn out cliché in India’s electoral politics that the voters, instead of casting their vote, actually vote their caste. We may collectively decry casteism, but nevertheless, caste rules supreme in the electoral calculus. If this had not been the case, then we would not have seen the rise of the likes of Mayawati, Mulayam Singh, Kalyan Singh, Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad Yadav and their smaller versions on political chessboards. This works not only at the macro level of state and regional politics, but also at the parliamentary and assembly level, with claimants for party tickets arguing their case on the basis of the caste combinations that obtain in their area.

Indeed, the entire concept of vote bank politics is shaped on the strength of these numbers. The major political parties like the Congress and the BJP also play the caste card deftly and in abundant measure, even as they come up with pro forma denials. Or else, we would not be witnessing this intense wooing of the sulking former union minister, Ram Vilas Paswan, by the BJP. He is a prize catch for them. In the first place, he helps counter the criticism that a Modi led BJP does not attract allies, and in the second, he comes in handy to show the Bihar chief minister, Nitish Kumar, that he erred badly in breaking a 17- year old alliance on the Modi issue.

The BJP plus Paswan may not make a big dent in the numbers game, but then it shows that the wily Paswan has picked up the winner of the 2014 elections and his community must follow suit. He has this uncanny knack of being on the winning side. For nearly 10- years, from 1999 to 2009, despite the Union government changing colours, Paswan has richly reaped the dual harvest of being Dalit and being an influential minister in the rival regimes of the UPA, as well as the NDA.

He was mightily upset with his ally, Lalu Prasad Yadav, for having grabbed the lucrative railways portfolio. A smart politico, he however miscalculated the alliance maths in 2009, when he ditched the Congress, which has no caste base in Bihar and went with Yadav. In the event, all of them — Congress, Yadav and Paswan were nearly routed in the state of Bihar.

However, the UPA- II came to power. Thus, Paswan, along with Yadav, was left high and dry.

He did cut some of his losses by getting into the Rajya Sabha, but then he is not among those who can remain out of power for long. Five years later, as the Congress faces a tough battle, it too has realised the potency of their alliance, and is back to working out an arrangement for seat sharing.

Of the 40 seats from the state, the Congress had just two, and any gains accruing from this tie- up would give it a much needed chance to make up for the losses it is expected to suffer in other areas. But then, the seat sharing talks are testing Paswan’s patience. Like everything else associated with the Congress, it could turn out to be a case of too little, too late for him. So, he has given indications that he is not averse to a tie- up with the BJP as well.

The deal has not been clinched, but this is a familiar tactic that has been used by other negotiators with the Congress. In fact, Paswan has emulated the other skilled master tactician Sharad Pawar, who also plays his cards with consummate skill in sending out these signals.

Recall the manner in which Pawar got the Congress to sign on the dotted line for the seat sharing agreement, checkmating all its plans to alter the 26- 22 format in Maharashtra to the 29- 19 touted by the state leadership. Paswan too, is flexing his muscles so that the Congress- RJD leadership walks the requisite distance towards him. Obviously, every regional leader wants to maximise his strength in his terrain. This actually fits into the larger picture, where all the pre-poll surveys are, indicating that even with all the spectacular gains that may be registered to reach an unprecedented tally, a Modi- led BJP NDA is not going to cross the magic figure of 272. This will necessarily create a situation where the regional leaders would be free to strike their own deals after the polls. Their post-poll options would matter more than the deals struck before the elections, when it comes to actually cobbling up a coalition government. We can rest assured that it will follow one basic law of geometry — the sum of the lengths of any two sides of a triangle is greater than that of the third. Right now, there are two clear sides – the Congress- led UPA, the BJP- led NDA, and the third one is as yet an amorphous, third federal front, depending on whether you are listening to Prakash Karat or Mamata Banerjee.

The fact that the third side can be split further along as yet indeterminate lines creates all the uncertainty and makes the electoral game as much mysterious, as the collective wisdom of the voter. The cherished two- party system that lends stability to a bipolar democracy seems pretty elusive for India, at least in the near foreseeable future. Indeed, if the 15th Lok Sabha was a much disrupted and dysfunctional House, rendering democratic decision making difficult, it was due in large measure to the fractured nature of the mandate in 2009. Every regional party — the TMC or the DMK, supporting the government, could hold it to ransom and get away with it. For them, the local calculus — caste or regional matters, takes precedence above all else. So what if national interests suffer in the process? But then neither have the main political parties developed the skill to harmonise the national with the regional or vice versa. This remains a major structural flaw in our democracy. INAV


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