Pinaki Bhattacharya Headshot

Garbled Messages, Fragmented Mandate

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Elections to almost three-fourths of India's 544-member lower house of Parliament, the Lok Sabha have already been completed. The secrets of the ballots are firmly ensconced in the electronic voting machines. Speculation abounds about who would have won the people's confidence this time, making them the rulers of India for the next five years.

By all indications, the fortunes of both the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian Peoples' Party)-led National Democratic Alliance and the centrist, Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance seem to be under a cloud. Challenging this bipolarity is another combine of the Leftist parties and their socialist colleagues, yet unnamed and amorphous in nature, loosely termed the Third Front.

The emergence of this third force in Indian politics reflects a fragmented polity with the absence of a central message. Unlike in the USA, where the bipolar politics of the country is sought to be held together by fashioning messages that address each sub-section of interest groups in the broader society, in India the ruling class has not yet learnt the lessons of how to divide and rule.

They do not yet have the Indian counterparts of Madison Avenue hucksters who could vivisect the polity to minuscule proportions; thus making them eminently more manageable and then target messages catering to their special interests.

Instead, Indian elections are historically fought on one central unifying message that is drummed into the consciousness of the people by the political campaigners. So in 2004, Congress Party's message was: Congress's hand (an allusion to its poll symbol) is with the common people. This had played well as a contrast to the elitist, urban centric policies of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government. The Congress Party had done so well with the message that it was able to form a coalition government on the basis of the slogan.

This time around, while the Congress Party repeated the same message rather unconvincingly, the main rival BJP talked about a "decisive government." The assumption was that the dual power centers during the Congress Party-led rule -- that of the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh and the party president, Sonia Gandhi -- was a recipe for an 'indecisive government.'

Little did they realize that the political discourse had moved away from a 'strong central government addressing people's desires in far flung areas.' The people are clearly not willing to render their fate into the hands of a small elite in New Delhi, but instead prefer parties who are closer home in touch with them on a regular basis.

This is where the Leftist party-led Third Front has scored. It is a conglomeration of parties that are ruling the various provinces, thus in touch with the realities of the people on a daily basis. Significantly, the Third Front also did not go to the people with any central message as it suited them to have various voices articulating myriad visions that resonated with the people better.

A crucial element in the alternative formation is the rise of the party of India's 'untouchables', the Bahujan Samaj Party (Multifaceted Society Party) and its leader Mayawati. Ever since independence, major political parties like the Congress Party had promised emancipation to the lowest denomination in hierarchical casteist social order in India. But they had invariably failed to deliver.

So Mayawati's mentor Kanshi Ram had founded a party to cater solely to the constituency of the 'dalits,' literally, the 'oppressed' or the 'untouchables.' Large in numbers, close to a majority of the population, the dalits had never been able to gain advantage of their numbers as they remained divided by power and pelf, selectively distributed.

This time around these inchoate voices have found a rallying point. This may not immediately translate into complete dominance of the political scene by the party, but it is expected to emerge as a force to reckon with, this election. They would thus be a major constituent of the Third Front.

Already, the political bean-counters are in great demand to calculate who has got, how much. The political match-making to form coalitions for governance cannot wait till 16 May when the results will be out. It has to begin now in right earnest.

After an arduous, month-long, five phase election process, India will not most certainly have a ready government. The process of government formation would reflect the complexities of Indian politics. In that the central message cannot be just a blatant power-grab.

The next government would still have to deal with many problems that it would inherit from the national and global realms. Plus, the parties would have to cater to the interests of their individual constituencies. Some of that might conflict with the corporate interests of the country in its entirety. But the golden mean would have to be found.