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Alliances are the key to understanding India’s general election

India’s election campaign is officially underway.  However, negotiations over seat sharing between potential partners are still ongoing.  India is a federal state with 29 states and 7 Union Territories (the 29th state, Telengana, was created literally days before the election was called, many argue in an attempt of the ruling Congress to secure electoral dividends – in fact, the BJP came on board in the eleventh hour to seek to capitalise on this).  The existence of multiple electoral arenas (and alliances) means that the electoral maths are complicated.  Therefore, although a recently released large scale attitudinal survey confirmed the general perception of huge National Democratic Alliance (NDA) gains (of which the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the main component) over the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) of the Congress Party, and a Pew Global Survey Report released in February found that ‘More than six-in-ten Indians (63%) [would] prefer the BJP to lead the next Indian national government. Just two-in-ten (19%) pick the Indian National Congress’, the specific results are hard to call.

What will determine the results of the election will be alliances between parties in particular states.  These states are diverse, in terms of their linguistic and religious composition, but also in terms of their levels of economic development, female literacy and caste relations.  Electoral alliances between political parties operate on the basis of negotiating the number of seats a party will contest in a particular state, with the alliance partner contesting in the other seats e.g. between the Shiv Sena and the BJP in the state of Maharashtra.  The alliance between the extreme Hindu nationalist Shiv Sena and the BJP is a natural one, but many other alliances are less obvious and often occasioned by political opportunism rather than ideological affiliation.  This is one reason why they are still in the process of being finalised.

Although India used to be known for having a one party dominant system (in the shape of the Indian National Congress) it must be remembered that Congress never secured the majority of the votes, even at the high point of its dominance.  However, its share of the Lok Sabha (House of the People) seats was inflated by the ‘first past the post’ simple plurality electoral system.  As Congress’s organisation weakened and other political parties became more institutionalised, first at the state level (as seen in the 1967 elections) and then at national level (first in 1977 after Indira Gandhi was trounced at the polls following the calling off of the National Emergency that suspended democracy) and then again in 1989, the party system at the national level became dependent on alliances.

Since 1989 there has not been a majority single party government at the national level in India, and there is unlikely to be in the future given the dynamics of state politics.  In 1989 the National Front alliance took power, ruling until 1991 when the Congress returned to power as a minority government, led by Narasimha Rao.  The BJP came to power as the largest party in the 1996 elections and after 13 days conceded that they were unable to form a coalition, handing over power to a left leaning coalition, the United Front.

In 1998 the BJP returned to power, having learnt the lessons of coalition politics, and, in the main, moderating their policies in an attempt to attract coalition partners with secular political agendas and/or those dependent on Muslim votes.  Although their government fell when one of their alliance partners, the ADMK from Tamil Nadu withdrew from the NDA, leading to the 1999 election, its 1999-2004 coalition was stable (the coalition did not include the ADMK) and lasted its full term.  The Congress returned to power as part of the United Progressive Alliance in 2004, belying the predictions of many, including this author, and, having finally accepted the logic of coalition politics, managed to stay in power for a full term.  It was returned to power in 2009 again as part of the (slightly reconstituted) United Progressive Alliance. As noted above, it is extremely unlikely to be re-elected for a third term.

As with all political parties voted out of office, especially for a second election in a row, the BJP in the noughties was riddled with internal dissension.  Its previous successes at the national level were attributed by many analysts, including this author, to the moderation of its leader, Atul Behari Vajpayee.  But the party questioned whether a more extreme agenda would have yielded better results.  Its choice of Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 election has been controversial, with its alliance partner in Bihar, the JD(U) withdrawing from the NDA in 2012.  Modi is a controversial figure, the Chief Minister of Gujarat state with a reputation for delivering high levels of economic growth in the state.  However, he was accused of, at best failing to prevent the massacre of up to 2000 Muslims in 2002 in Gujarat, and at worst, complicity in the pogrom, leading to a visa ban by several foreign governments, including the US and the UK (although the ban was lifted in 2012 by the UK, and is likely to be lifted by the US if Modi becomes Prime Minister).

Issues are of course important in this election as well.  Corruption, inflation and economic development are the main voter concerns, and future posts in this blog will focus on manifesto commitments and the rationale behind alliances (that are more than opportunistic).  But it is important to remember that, despite much of the media’s focus on the Rahul Gandhi and Modi show, it is at the state level that this election will be decided.


Professor Katharine Adeney is the Director of the Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies at the University of Nottingham.  She is author of Federalism and Ethnic Conflict Regulation in India and Pakistan (2007) and Contemporary India (2010) (with Andrew Wyatt). She has also co-edited (with Lawrence Saez), Coalition Politics and Hindu Nationalism.  She tweets @katadeney

Published inIndia Votes 2014

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