x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

A leadership crisis that India's 'third front' cannot solve

India's regional parties are flexing their muscles at the national level. But they have built-in brakes that will prevent them from using power well if they get it.

'Don't cheat people. Don't kill people," read the banners above the dais where Mamata Banerjee addressed a crowd of her supporters in Delhi on Monday.

The rally was another blow against the beleaguered national Congress Party, which has lost its parliamentary majority after introducing economic reforms two weeks ago, easing the way for foreign direct investment.

Ms Banerjee is the chief minister of West Bengal who has made opposition to reforms a central plank of her platform. The rally, attended by around 5,000 supporters of her Trinamool Congress party, was the first thrust in her expected battle to tear down her former allies in the Congress-led central government.

The rally crowd included thousands of party workers who had come from Ms Banerjee's base in Kolkata and from the north-east, where she has significant support. A handful came to the rally from as far away as Chennai, travelling 20 hours by train.

When parliament resumes in mid-November, Ms Banerjee will probably join the opposition to try to force early national elections.

The Congress-led central government has been hobbled by months of political stagnation as a result of near-constant filibusters from the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a floundering economy and a seemingly endless parade of corruption allegations. The opposition smells blood, and Ms Banerjee sees an opportunity to transform Trinamool Congress into a national party, with her populist politics.

The BJP has begun reaching out to smaller regional parties in the hopes of laying the foundations of coalition government. But it may be disappointed. Those parties also have larger ambitions.

Ms Banerjee has yet to confirm that she has personal ambitions larger than West Bengal, but the same is not true of others. Mulayam Singh Yadav, head of the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, has declared an interest in becoming prime minister. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazahagam (AIADMK), in Tamil Nadu wants their chief Jayalalithaa Jayaram to get the job. None of these parties are interested in forming a government with the BJP.

The regional parties are beginning to lay the groundwork for a government excluding the two national parties - a so-called "third front", or "federal front". In Delhi Ms Banerjee made her first public call for such a coalition: "The country cannot be run from Delhi."

Such movements are not new. The AIADMK joined the Communists to create a third front in the 2009 elections. The Samajwadi party led a so-called fourth front. Both coalitions lost miserably, failing together to earn half the seats Congress won.

Congress has dominated national politics since India's independence, and the BJP is its largest competition, but coalition governments formed without either have occurred before. The National Front and the United Front came to power in 1989 and 1996, respectively; neither managed to complete a full term.

Now the Samajwadi, the Trinamool and other smaller parties believe India is ready for another such government. Regional parties have begun quiet, backdoor negotiations with one another.

The inertia of the Congress-led government and leadership struggles within the BJP have strengthened the argument for change. The weakening of both parties has in turn led to more influence for the regional parties.

Trinamool has an outsize influence on national politics because it played kingmaker during the coalition negotiations to form the current government. Now that the party has withdrawn from government, the support of the Samajwadi party is all that prevents the coalition from folding.

The growing influence of regional parties is undeniable. They are now large enough that support from any one of them can make or break a coalition government. They are supported by solid constituencies in their home states. However, there is a ceiling to this growth, which will prevent them from becoming serious contenders to rule the country.

Too much of the success of these parties is tied up in regional identity. The AIADMK is very much a south Indian party, with little prospect of breaking into the north - their party support is tied up in Dravidian identity politics, and that group is concentrated in the south.

The Samajwadi has wider appeal as a representative of minority groups and the lower castes, and it is the third largest party in parliament, but it remains almost exclusively an Uttar Pradesh party, just as Trinamool Congress is based in West Bengal.

The success of such parties is also their greatest weakness in national elections. They rose to prominence by addressing the needs of their states and the underprivileged, and are beholden to those constituencies in ways the Congress and BJP are not.

India needs a strong central government. More than half of Indians earn less than $2 a day each. India's food subsidy programme is the world's largest. Without a strong central government to divide the pie, there would be chaos.

Twice in India's history, weak coalitions of regional parties proved incapable of building long-term consensus, and there is little reason to believe such parties can do so now. Voters may be angry about rising prices, but that does not mean they see a loose coalition of parties with drastically divergent interests as the solution.

The rise of regional parties is a sign that accountability is growing in Indian politics, and that can only be a good thing. But this does not translate into a mandate to govern the country.


Sean McLain is a freelance journalist based in Delhi

On Twitter: @McLainSean