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Electoral Alliances: A SERIOUS COMEDY OF ERRORS, By Dr S Saraswathi, 17 Dec, 2013 Print E-mail

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New Delhi, 17 December 2013

Electoral Alliances


By Dr S Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


The making, unmaking, and remaking of electoral alliances going on in India in recent times looks like a comedy but with serious political consequences. Just the other day, the DMK in Tamil Nadu became the latest actor in this comedy. Its supremo M Karunanidhi stated there will be no tie-up with the Congress for the 2014 elections: “We suffered a lot in the Congress alliance. It created a bad name for us.” However, there was silence whether it would extend its hand to the other single largest party, the BJP.  


Indeed, with the decline of one-party dominance at the Centre, alliances of various types have come to stay both during pre-poll and post-poll periods. This trend is getting stronger with the formation of coalition Governments that have been able to run their full or near full terms.


In a way, this may be interpreted as an important phase in the history of the Congress. The party, that hitherto represented an amalgam of various political schools, finds itself giving space to emergence of independent political parties with rather narrow and pointed political interests. In other words, the country is facing the inevitable political fallout of a plural society, a huge population with strong regional interests and sentiments working a parliamentary democracy of the British model.


The Congress, which was pretending and professing to represent all regions, sectors,  religions and groups in itself had to face the reality within a few decades after Independence that it is fast becoming one among many parties. The recent Assembly elections in five States is undeniably one such pointer.


At the Centre, the Party was failing in the politics of consensus. As a result, India’s parliamentary democracy was eventually to develop a multi-party system. In the federal set up, this system gets more and more complicated as years roll. And, the politics of alliances is a feature of multi-party politics.


Electoral alliances and coalition governments have political relations, but the constituent partners in each, even under the same leader, are not always identical. These need not be so if we understand party politics in India.


Recall in the late 60s, electoral alliances were successful in many State elections. Non-Congress governments were formed in Bihar, Kerala, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, and West Bengal which encouraged the politics of alliances in subsequent decades.


Importantly, it was the politics of alliances that ended the Congress rule in 1967 in Tamil Nadu. Anti-Congress parties of all shades were brought together with the DMK as the dominant partner. The rightist Swatantra and the leftist Communists were partners in this alliance.


The idea of alliance emerged when some leaders realized that a large number of candidates in multi-member constituencies were winning elections on the support of minority votes under the first-past-the-post system. A candidate’s victory in a constituency or a party’s victory in a General election is possible with opposition polling majority votes.


The politics of electoral alliances was initiated mainly against the Congress. It had then a negative objective of defeating the Congress. At the Centre, the first major challenge to the Congress regime came from the “Grand Alliance” in 1972 soon after the split of the Congress in 1969.  It did not succeed.


The first successful challenge to the Congress came in 1977.  However, it was not an alliance technically, but a merger of certain non-Congress parties mainly the Jana Sangh, Bharatiya Lok Dal, Congress (O), Socialists, and the Young Turks within the Congress under a common name the ‘Janata Party’.


Henceforth, alliances and merger were both going on before elections. In 1988, the Janata Dal was formed by the merger of Jan Morcha, Janata Party, Lok Dal, and Congress (S) in order to pool their electoral power. This step drew some of the regional parties in their fold like the DMK, TDP, AGP and led to the National Front of five parties.


Technically, VP Singh’s National Front government was the first coalition Government formed out of pre-poll alliance of different parties by seat sharing and post-poll pact for coordinated arrangement for governance.


This pre-poll alliance without any organizational set up of the convener worth mentioning won a simple majority and formed the Government at the Centre with outside support of the BJP, and the Communist Parties.  It was defeated on the withdrawal of the support of the BJP in 1990 on the question of L K Advani’s arrest during his ‘rath yatra’.


Chandrasekhar, who took over from V P Singh with a modified alliance and outside support of the Congress was also ditched in a short time by the latter wanting to take over. It was a period of breaking parties and shifting partners for the sake of gaining seats of power - an inevitable result of the importance of numbers in a majoritarian rule.


The United Front was a post-poll alliance of parties opposed to both Congress and the BJP. Its emergence was due to the fractured verdict of 1996 elections and hence the partners had no common promises to their voters. They all claimed that the electoral verdict was in favour of secular, democratic values. The grouping was able to formulate a common policy statement and a common minimum programme intended to strengthen the principles of democracy, secularism, federalism, and social justice. Its approach was towards greater involvement of people in all its endeavours.


However, the United Front government suffered the weakness of post-poll alliance of parties to share power, and dependence on external support. In politics, such support can never be reliable. Arithmetic calculation of party support thus becomes the main consideration in deciding issues.


Post-electoral alliances have taken various forms – conditional and unconditional support, outside support, issue-based support, participation in government, neutrality or abstention from voting against one’s own stated positions, and even extending support against articulated party policy to save a friendly government and/or to prevent an opponent coming to power.


The last mentioned form of support in the above list is heard frequently in recent years to justify crucial parliamentary support to the Congress. The plea is prevention of what is dubbed as “communal forces” gaining strength. On one occasion, a party even voted against its own stand to avoid being seen in the company of the BJP, with which it was in agreement on the issue.


Post-poll alliance politics has really degenerated into a politics of rank opportunism. It has widened the gap between the voters and their representatives in Parliament. The allies have no commitments to the voters or to their constituencies to be honoured by loyalty to their ally. The voters are unaware of the party leanings of the party/candidate to which they vote. They do not even know which way the party they had supported would vote on any important issue in Parliament. The smaller the parties and fewer their members, the greater is the risk of the voters.


Post-poll alliance thus appears to be an undemocratic feature in a democracy. The voters have a right to know what their candidates and parties stand for and a right to expect that they do not defect from their stated positions without an explanation to the electorate. Will the political parties pay heed? – INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)






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