By Rajan Philips –
In last Saturday’s (19 April 2014) Island, Gunadasa Amarasekara, the venerable veteran of ‘patriotic nationalism’, alerted the readers to ‘India’s behaviour’ as a critical factor in asking the question: “Has a new approach been developed to divide the country following the Geneva session.” The article is all about the Geneva resolution and India’s non-voting on it, and has nothing at all about what seems to have happened after the resolution to raise alarm in Sri Lanka. In fact, nothing much has happened after the Geneva resolution except of course the plethora of speculations and analyses. Even the “new approach” that seems to be causing concern is nothing other than the much maligned 13th Amendment and the unfortunate misunderstanding that its implementation will ultimately divide the country. The strategic patriotic thinking is that by abstaining on the vote in the resolution, India (with US connivance) has positioned itself to quietly coax, rather than overtly confront, the electorally invincible Mahinda Rajapaksa to implement the 13th Amendment in full. Otherwise, it is asked, what business has 13A in a human rights resolution? As if the patriots would have accepted a pure human rights resolution if it was not sullied by 13A at India’s behest. The supreme patriotic task now is to make sure that the President is not deceived by this ‘new approach’. In other words, make sure that 13A is rejected before India or anyone else tries to revive it. What is new here?
What is new – can lead to a different discussion three weeks from now when the results of India’s 16th national elections would be known, and a different government would likely take office in Delhi. India’s elections did not figure at all in Dr. Amarasekara’s article probing into ‘India’s behaviour’. He may have thought it was premature to comment on the elections that were not even half way through when he wrote his piece. There was no such hesitation in the weekly political commentary that appeared the next day (The Sunday Island, 20 April) – the familiar mishmash of hurriedly read and ill digested information – this time on Indian federalism, paranoia about the dangers to Sri Lanka lurking in the outcome of India’s elections, and a wrap-up call for a defence agreement between Sri Lanka and China. The only reason why we should not laugh this off as lunatic journalism is that it might really be a scoop into the thinking of someone substantial in the government. That does not make such thinking less absurd, but it should warn us to the danger of insanity in politics and in policy.
While it is important for Sri Lanka to observe and understand India’s election process and its eventual outcome, it is even more important to draw the correct lessons from India’s experience as it is to draw lessons from the recent elections in Quebec in Canada that I have discussed in a separate article. With great respect to Dr. Amarasekara’s earnestness and forthrightness, I must say that India’s behaviour is only half the story in the relationship between India and Sri Lanka. Even more important is Sri Lanka’s behaviour not only externally towards India but also internally towards its own citizens, especially those who are not Sinhalese. The 13th Amendment provides for a balanced behaviour by the government of Sri Lanka externally and internally. It is not Dr. Amarasekara’s fault that he should have misgivings about 13A. It is the government’s fault in trying to make 13A all things to all people (13A+, 13A-, 13A-repeal), on the one hand, while abusing the PC system to the hilt in eight out of nine provinces and stymying it in the ninth (North), on the other. The 13A will go nowhere proper without the government changing course. Meanwhile, those of us who see things differently will yet try to persuade others by casting differently the current goings on in India. India’s elephantine democracy and its evolving federalism have consistently fared better than the best prognosis of its worst detractors. That consistency is not going to change regardless of the outcome of the country’s sixteenth elections.
The commonplace prognosis is that the incumbent Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) will be defeated and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), with Narendra Modi as Prime Minister, will form India’s next government. But there is no agreement about how bad a defeat the Congress will suffer and how huge a victory the BJP will secure. The Indian media outlets that are clearly divided in their support for the two alliances are either downplaying or exaggerating BJP’s margin of victory. Modi is calling on the voters to give him a triple century of seats in the Lok Sabha, saying that he needs a strong mandate for him to make India strong in the world. His supporters are predicting a majority victory, i.e. a minimum of 272 seats out of the total 543 Lok Sabha seats. Those opposed to the BJP are predicting a lesser victory, some even saying that, while the NDA will definitely win the largest number of seats, it may not pass the 200-seat mark. Diehard Congress supporters are conceding defeat but are assuring surprises in that the Congress will fare better than the doomsday forecasts of being reduced to less than a hundred seats.
The third unknown is the number of non-Congress, non-BJP candidates who will win their seats. Whether this third unknown will turn into a Third Front post-election remains to be seen, especially after pre-election attempts to forge a Third Front by the Left Parties (primarily the CPM) ended in failure. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP – the Common Man’s Party) is an unknown quantity in its own right. Arvind Kejriwal’s move to turn the anti-corruption movement into a political party produced a spectacular splash in local Delhi elections last year, but its base is mostly urban and its resources may be far too thinly spread across the country for the AAP to make a substantial showing in its first national election. But the AAP is making its presence everywhere contesting nearly 400 seats countrywide. The more assured on their own turf are the regional parties who are contesting ‘non-allied’ for the first time in years in the states of Uttar Pradesh (Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party), West Bengal (Mamata Banarjee’s Trinamool Congress), and Tamil Nadu (Jayalalitha’s ADMK and the DMK of the Karunanidhi family). The three states account for 162 seats in the Lok Sabha, and if the four regional parties muster around 100 seats among them, as they could, at least three of them (ADMK and DMK being mutually exclusive) could present a united force to reckon with in the new parliament.
The uncertainty of the eventual outcome is not so much a punter’s challenge as it is a window to political analysis and understanding of the current phase in the evolution of India’s federalism. To have some idea of how the votes and seats will shake out in the end, we might start by looking at the distribution of Lok Sabha seats among the states even as India’s sixteenth election passes its halfway mark. As of today, six of the nine election phases (or polling days) distributed over five weeks from 7 April to 12 May, are over and voting for 349 out of 543 constituencies has been completed. Delhi (7 seats), Haryana (10), Chhattisgarth (11), Assam (14), Jharkhand (14), Kerala (20), Odisha (formerly Orissa, 21), Rajasthan (25), Karnataka (28), Madhya Pradesh (29), Tamil Nadu (40 including the one seat in Puducherry) and Maharashtra (48) have all completed their elections. Bihar (40), West Bengal (42) and the seat-rich Uttar Pradesh (80) are yet to reach their half-way mark. Gujarat (26) and Punjab (13) will go to polls on 30 April. The bifurcated Andhra Pradesh (42) will have elections over two days: on 30 April in the new Telengana State (17) and on 7 May in the remaining Seemandhra State (25).
Against this background, let us look at the distribution of seats by state, won by the Congress and the BJP in the 2009 election. Individually and without taking into account the total seats won by their alliances, the Congress and the BJP respectively won 206 and 116 seats in the 2009 election. With the exception of the Congress winning 33 seats in Andhra Pradesh (its highest in any state in 2009), neither party dominated any of the seat-rich states. The Congress got 20 and 21 seats in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, and won more than 10 seats in four other states (Gujarat, 11; Kerala, 13; Madhya Pradesh, 12; and Maharashtra, 17). In every other state Congress won less than 10 seats, while the BJP did not win 20 seats in any state, and won 10 or more seats in only six states. In other words, there is not much room for the BJP to gain more than 150 seats at the expense of Congress to pass the majority threshold of 272 seats, let alone reach Modi’s coveted triple century mark. There is even less room for the BJP to gain at the expense of the non-Congress parties given the well-established bases that these parties have in their respective states. The only way BJP can win as spectacularly as Modi seems to be hoping is by routing the Congress to go below not just 100 seats but 50 seats. No one seems to be betting on a total Congress rout.
A direct transfer of seats from Congress to BJP can happen only where the BJP has a substantial following and where there are no regional parties, such as the Northern and Western States of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, Gujarat and Delhi. These states account for 103 seats and the BJP won 45 of them in 2009. Even if Congress were to lose all the 58 seats it won in these States in 2009, it will not be enough for the BJP to get its majority. In almost all the other states the electoral contests are multi-cornered, and in many of them neither the Congress nor the BJP is the leading contender. For instance, the four Southern States (Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu including Puducherry) account for 130 seats. The Congress won 60 seats in 2009 and the BJP won 19 – all of them in Karnataka. It has never won a seat in Kerala or Tamil Nadu. Yet, the BJP leadership has set itself a boastful target of 55 seats in the South for the current elections. Is this possible? The indications are that the Congress may go down badly to lose even 30 of the current 60 seats it is holding including a total whitewash in Tamil Nadu. But it seems hugely unlikely that the BJP and allies will get more than 30 seats in the South. The BJP may well once again fail to “open its account” in Kerala and in Tamil Nadu. The non-Congress, non-BJP Parties are likely to get more seats than the combined total of the Congress and the BJP. Albeit for different reasons, the electoral tallies in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal (with a combined total of 162 seats) are likely to be similar. The BJP’s real spoilers could be the minority Muslim and Dalit voters who are more averse to Modi than they are to the BJP. Their votes could make a difference in a number of constituencies that may well determine the fate of a Modi majority.
India’s evolving federalism
The distribution of seats between the Congress, the BJP, and all the other parties (combined) is also reflected in their share of the national vote, although the parties do not benefit by the same ratio of seat per one percent vote share. The point here is that the combined vote share of the Congress and the BJP has dropped dramatically from 58% in 1991 to 47.5% in 2009. This shows the increase in the share of the votes garnered by the non-Congress and non-BJP parties. They accounted for more than half the share of the national vote in 2009 and the trend is more than likely to continue rather than be reversed. The fact that the non-Congress and non-BJP parties are more regional than national has made India’s national elections an aggregate of state level choices that voters make. This has been the case in the last five elections and it is symptomatic of what federalism scholars call the fourth phase in the evolution of federalism in India. It is not electoral politics that is making India more and more the sum of its States, but it is the liberalization of India’s economy that is transforming its federalism into inter-state competition without challenging national unity. What were once seen as ‘fissiparous tendencies’ are now partakers in the new market federalism.
Chronologically, the first phase in the evolution was the fifteen years or so under the stewardship of Jawaharlal Nehru. This was when the central government was also the centre of the Indian universe, and the Congress Party was in power everywhere from the centre all round to the states. Yet, Nehru nurtured federalism as only he could have done, despite the temptation to concentrate power at the centre and in him personally. He did not theorize about federalism but every month he wrote an individual letter to each Chief Minister (who were all Congress members) addressing the month’s issues and soliciting their input. Nehru was a nation builder who laid the foundation for the longevity of India’s federalism. The second phase was the more challenging phase that saw the authoritarian centre under Indira Gandhi pitted against the dissidents in her own Party and the emerging state and regional forces. Her 1975 Emergency Rule caused a public revolt and the first defeat of the Congress in a national election in 1977. But the Congress returned to rule till 1988 after a brief Janata Party interregnum. Then came the third phase marked by coalitions, alliances and minority governments. Regional Parties and the Hindu nationalist BJP became compulsive partners at the Centre. The Congress came to terms with its declining dominance even as its detractors became committed to their stakes at the centre. The so called “big bang liberalization of the Indian economy” (that started in 1992) produced the current fourth phase in the evolution of India’s federalism.
Economic liberalization has created the so called “competition states” that compete with one another for local investment, foreign capital including funds from non-resident Indians, location of industries and job creation. Even the Central Government is one of the competitors as the earlier phase of co-operative federalism has given way to competitive federalism, or what Rob Jenkins has called “Provincial Darwinism.” Not all states are equal competitors, however, as the states like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat have had greater success than others, while states like Bihar and the eastern states are lagging behind in the . But governments in the lagging states are not opposing these competitive changes but they want to get in on the act themselves. It is not a coincidence that there has been resurgence of Naxalism in the eastern states but it is hardly finding traction with the mass of the people. The people in these states are leaving their homes for the more competitive states to escape the human condition that Joan Robinson once called “the only thing worse than being exploited by capital is not being exploited at all.”
To put it cynically, the Congress is paying the price for not facilitating this ‘exploitation’ in a more systematic way while fostering corruption with impunity, and for being stuck on secularism like a broken record. Mr. Modi is promising to facilitate exploitation more efficiently and eliminate corruption. He certainly has the wind of change behind him, but there is just that phalanx of regional parties and that draft of alienated minority Muslim and Dalit voters who might drag him to fall short of the majority threshold, let alone the triple century he is coveting.