By Roger Alexander
Blessed are those who do not watch TV news channels or read newspapers, for they have missed nothing. Indeed, even as the month-long election process come to a close on May 13, newspaper readers and TV addicts alike remain clueless. This is not an election in which there will be winners and losers; this is a “game of numbers”, we are told.
The most important number – indeed the “magic number” - is 272. Any party that can can “cobble together” 272 MPs will form the next government. In other words, we are told the best cobbler will win.
So there's a catch, and it's called Catch 272.
No political party can claim it can win 272 seats on its own. Indeed, no pre-poll alliance can reach the magic number. So the media has gleefully job of the cobbler. And self-appointed pollsters/opinionators are busy dreaming up scenarios of post-poll tie-ups.
The easiest way to build castles in the air is to first knock the Third Front as a serious contender out of the picture. You see, if the Third Front is allowed to remain in the reckoning as a bloc, even if the Congress and BJP join hands they do not add up to 272 and therefore unable to form a national unity government, a concept that has fund favour with many commentators. You see, in this scenario the Left parties have no role to play; good riddance.
Rather than recognise the Third Front, our pollsters/opinionators are more comfortable with a category labelled “others”. In this discourse, it's easier to steer “flotsam and jetsam” towards one or the other “national party”.
The high falutin “analysis” from the likes of Prannoy Roy and Rajdeep Sardesai is that almost all regional parties will happily join either the Congress or the BJP and some, like Ram Vilas Paswan's LJP or the AIADMK can do business with both.
In this scenario, even the Congress and BJP would not be averse to ditching existing allies and align with their opponents to reach the magic number, we are told. This is not rank opportunism, for long the hallmark of the so-called national parties, but a legitimate democratic exercise to form a “viable and stable government”.
What we are not told is that these so-called national parties do not exist in large swathes of the country. The Congress has virtually disappeared from the Gangetic plains. Mulayam Singh Yadav was willing to give Sonia Gandhi just 17 seats of the 80 from UP. Lalu Prasad was willing to concede just three of the 40 in Bihar. And Mamata Banerjee has parted with 14 seats (most of them “unwinnable”) in West Bengal that elects 42 MPs.
In Tamil Nadu/Puducherry Karunanidhi has allotted just 16 seats to the Congress from the state's quota of 40 constituencies. In Maharashtra, once its bastion, the Congress is contesting just 25 of the 48 seats, the rest going to Sharad Pawar's NCP. Together, these states send 250 MPs, i.e. nearly half the Lok Sabha's strength. And this party and its cheerleaders in the media insist it is a national party.
Similarly, the BJP just does not exist in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala. In Bihar it has to ride piggy-back on Nitish Kumar and in Maharashtra Bal Thackeray is its big brother. In Haryana its fate is decided via an alliance with Om Prakash Chautala and in Punjab, it has to be content with the crumbs that Prakash Singh Badal throws its way. Together, these states account for 256 seats, i.e. nearly half the Lok Sabha's strength. And given its emasculation in Uttar Pradesh, one wonders what kind of national stature is the media talking about.
If you look at vote share, the Congress and BJP respectively attract around 25 per cent of the votes nationally; and in this election both parties combined will win less than 50 per cent of the votes. Yet both fancy themselves as the natural party of governance. And the cheering media is determined to perpetuate the myth.
However, voters are not buying this argument. Voters, more than the media, are acutely aware that India is a complex and diverse country. They have different loyalties and identities that drive their aspirations and actions. They may not have enough to eat, but they know that they have a vote in a country where electoral democracy is deeply entrenched and difficult to dislodge.
Not surprisingly, regional parties have grown from strength to strength in the last two decades, making coalitions an indelible part of the national political discourse. Remember, since 1996, a motley bunch has ruled from New Delhi. The NDA was an amalgam of around two dozen parties and the UPA's survival was dependent on a similar number of allies. So why does the media scoff at a Third Front, which is also a potpourri in the same mould?
The most significant fact behind the rise of the Third Front as a serious challenger to the status quo the corporate media favours is that the bulk of people who have been adversely affected by neoliberal economic policies - workers and peasants, students and self-employed, those searching for jobs and those working at multiple jobs to make ends meet – are seriously looking for alternatives that can deliver.
The smaller regional parties have very different bases, perceptions, identities, ideals, political strategies and forms of organisation and mobilisation. Some of them have already been, or continue to be associated with fronts formed by one or the other of the two large parties. But the current evidence of the disintegration of these fronts is not without significance.
Among other things it indicates that the smaller parties recognise that the role and power of the larger parties is likely to be further constrained in the near term. Otherwise, the likes of Lalu Prasad, Ram Vilas Paswan, Naveen Patnaik and Mulayam Singh Yadav would not have cut themselves from loose from the apron strings of the big parties, especially at this juncture.
This is what the current election is all about. The electoral outcomes in the past decade reflect the political churning that is going on at a furious pace. It continues apace and it is likely that it will throw up newer and different combinations of parties in power (who would have thought that the Congress would dump its myopic Panchmarhi Resolution to always go it alone in the dustbin of history?).
Indeed, what we are witnessing is a work in progress. The Third Front is a sign of a national polity that is emerging out of an immensely complicated reality, in a process that has taken several other countries much longer - often as much as a century - to complete. But we Indians are an impatient lot. We want it here and now.
For the likes of Congress and BJP spokespersons and their drummer boys in the media, democracy is only a game of numbers. It’s not about real people and their real lives or real problems; it’s not about the future of India and her children. But alas, even the numbers do not stack up for either the Congress or the BJP.
By my reckoning, the Congress will be lucky to get more than 100 seats and the BJP will manage to win a few more since it can boast of a few strongholds like Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat whereas the Congress has none (yes Zero, unless you count the Andaman& Nicobar Islands where the party has only lost once since Independence).
I'm not making this up. Just over a month ago before the election process got underway (and before Lalu Prasad threw the Fourth Front bombshell) the then UPA was supposed to be winning 257 seats, well within striking distance of the magic 272 mark, with the BJP a distant second with with 210 seats and “others” with 76 seats. Game, set and match Congress, was the verdict.
In the last week of April, the figures were revised drastically. A headline in DNA, a Mumbai daily, said it all: “The 'Others' Are Back”! The breakup was: Congress+ 188, BJP+ 183, Others 172. Obviously, parties like the MNF, NPP, SDP, MIM, PMK, KC, ADMK, PRP, LCP, BNF, FPM, IFDP, JSS, JMM, PWP, PMK, TRS, UDGP will all be “kingmakers”.
And therein lies the rub.
Roger And Out