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A pall of unease hangs over the national elections to the 15th Lok Sabha. Most pollsters and political analysts have preferred to hedge their bets, predicting a fractured verdict. Not surprising given their unenviable record in forecasting election results in the last decade, both to Parliament and state assemblies. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that all forecasts share a common rank ordering of both parties and alliances, placing the Congress and the UPA ahead of the BJP and NDA respectively. The Third and Fourth fronts follow.

None of this demands rocket science. The two major parties, the Congress and the BJP, are aware that they are in no position to field viable candidates in a sufficient number of constituencies across the country to have a reasonable shot at forming a majority government on their own. Much as their ideologues may assert a dominant national status, given the uneven development marking the country, both spatially and in terms of social segments, large spread parties will invariably be poorly placed when confronting smaller and more cohesive political formations able to articulate the concerns of their constituents more forcefully.

Given our choice of the ‘first past the post’ electoral system, any serious multi-party contest differentially favours any group which has the secure support of a reasonable minority of the voters. No wonder every political party, irrespective of its formal ideology, invests great energy in mapping the social composition of each constituency and strategises to woo, not all voters, but those specific social segment(s) which can help them best their rivals. In this, parties which see themselves as national are at a slight disadvantage since they need to be careful about how their promises and slogans in one region might play out elsewhere. In short, they need to be somewhat more tempered than their localised rivals.

In a billion plus subcontinental polity marked by a bewildering variety, this in itself need not be unhealthy. Enforced homogeneity, drawing upon an abstract idea of the national, more often than not, gives rise to tensions which may become unmanageable, a maxim that the earlier Congress realized well. No wonder, as Yogendra Yadav regularly reminds us, the Congress under Nehru was more a federation of state Congress party’s than a corporate entity governed by a high command. Unfortunately, once the party underwent a process of centralization and downgraded the status of provincial leaders, it slowly lost its ability to successfully mediate the inevitable tensions and aspirations that accompany uneven economic and political development. Little surprise that over the years it has been forced to cede space to more aggressive regional players, each of whom, once having consolidated power, seek greater leverage at the Centre.

A similar tension afflicts the BJP and its ideological project of constructing an artificial Hindu nationalist consolidation. Both parties may have managed to buck the trend towards greater provincial assertion in exceptional situations (the elections following the assassination of Indira Gandhi; the rising wave of Hindu sentiment accompanying the Ram janmabhoomi movement) and under charismatic leadership, but the longer term tendency is clear. Irrespective of the deep discomfort of national elites with what they characterize as the weakening of the Centre and with successive national governments being held hostage by regional satraps, there is little doubt that the foreseeable future belongs to coalitions and alliances. The era of single party dominance seems over.

Irrespective of the specific complexion of the next Lok Sabha, the real challenge before any incumbent government will be the successful political management of coalitional arrangements. In a situation marked by grave uncertainty – both the global and national economy, and a worsening security environment in our region – this demands both political acumen and statesmanship of a high order. What is disturbing is that despite all this being known to the political class, their electioneering strategies continue to treat the voter as immature, as children who cannot understand and rationally respond to the challenges of the time. No surprise that the hustings continue to witness strident posturings and populist appeals rather than meaningful engagement with issues, policies and programmes.

While it is adventurous to hazard a guess about outcomes, it would be well worth remembering that the present electorate is a vastly changed one. We today have a larger presence of the young, rurban voter – mobile, aspirational, seeking opportunities, intense consumer of a proliferating media, and thus, more aware. For the first time we have also witnessed a major campaign to vote, and intelligently. All this, in a competitive environment, is likely to affect voter choice and eventual outcomes. Can we hope that our parties and the political class are listening?

Harsh Sethi