Hail, caudillos!

The general elections to the Lok Sabha in India are arguably the greatest show on earth. The exercise, involving half-a-billion voters, millions of party cadres, thousands of candidates and an army of security personnel conducting the regular rites of democracy in a country as vast as India – well, it is mind-boggling, to put it mildly. It is only when the elections are over that the world realises what a miracle has taken place. Perhaps that is the reason – no matter who tops the tally – that the results of the Indian elections are always full of surprises; the diversity of the winners list is invariably bewildering. The guessing game is currently on about possible winners and losers; but considering the complexities of the exercise, even hardened psephologists hedge their bets with endless ifs and buts. The certainties of the past, when all that the Indian National Congress nominees had to worry about were rebel candidates, are long over.

Towering personalities continue to dominate national parties even now, but public figures that matter in the power equation now come from state capitals. Sonia Gandhi, L K Advani and Prakash Karat may be national leaders of the UPA, NDA and CPM, but their fortunes depend upon political engineers behind contraptions with a bewildering array of initials and acronyms, such as RJD, BSP, BJD, PDP, TDP, LJP, NCP, IUML, DMK, DMDK, AIADMK and PMK. These organisations are the political equivalent of private limited companies established and dominated by entrepreneurs extraordinaire.

Then there are the personalities who will dominate the process of making or breaking the government. This year, these include the RJD supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav, BSP supremo and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati, BJD supremo and Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, PDP supremo Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, TDP supremo N Chandrababu Naidu, LJP supremo Ram Vilas Paswan, NCP supremo Sharad Pawar, IUML supremo Panakkad Syed Mohammedali Shihab Thangal, DMK supremo Karunanidhi, DMDK supremo Vijayakanth, AIADMK supremo Jayalalitha, PMK supremo S Ramadoss, JD(U) supremo Nitish Kumar and JDS supremo Deve Gowda. The emphasis in each case, of course, is the adjective supremo – the caudillos of regional parties that have transformed national players into specialists of mergers, acquisitions and alliance-builders.

Coalition politics, with its attendant confusion and unpredictability, has come home to stay in the largest democracy of the world. This should augur well for communities in Southasia who share commonalities with populations across international borders in Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Bengal and all of the Northeast. Trans-border communities often have easier access to regional parties than national players in New Delhi.

Coalition continuity
Meanwhile, pre-poll alliances are often so fluid that it is the post-poll permutations and combinations that tend to determine the actual constituents of the central government in New Delhi. The sudden emergence of the Third Front – the NCNBSF, or Non-Congress, Non-BJP Secular Front, made up of ten parties including the BSP, the JD (S), the AIADMK and the CPI (M) among others – has thrown a spanner in the designs of Sonia Gandhi to plant her son Rahul on the prime-ministerial throne, after the possible withdrawal of her loyal munim Manmohan Singh (on health grounds) from the race for 10 Racecourse. The BJP-led NDA's cup of woes overflows, too, with powerful allies defecting (Navin Patnaik in Orissa) or dithering (the Thackeray clique in Maharashtra). L K Advani continues to harbour dreams of being prime minister; and Rahul's cousin, Varun Gandhi, with his recent oral excesses, has emerged as a possible challenger to Gujarat Chief Minister and hatemonger Narendra Modi. But during the economic downturn, voters may be a little underwhelmed by the BJP's Mandir Market rhetoric. It is the Third Front that may thus gain from the confusion.

The Third Front, however, knows that it is not going to form a government on its own. So, fundamental changes in political economy or foreign policy fronts are unlikely. Coalition governments are usually more comfortable with continuity and with fear rocking the boat. Perhaps that could be the reason Pranab Mukherjee is seen smiling so much these days. Should the occasion present itself for a Congress-Third Front coalition, who better than good-old Pranab Da to head it? If that happens, Piloo Modi's pun on his initials to Indira Gandhi – "Madam, you are temporary PM, I am the permanent one" – quoted wishfully by Pranab Da, may materialise in a more majestic form. Though all that this would mean for the rest of Southasia is more of the same from the formidable office of prime minister of India.

Read also: April issue analysis on the upcoming elections in India, Over to the Lok by Pratap Somvanshi.

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