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India in Transition

Coalition Politics in India: From Uttar Pradesh Elections to 2009

E. Sridharan
July 22, 2007

On May 22, 2007, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, supported by the Left parties, completed three years in office. The state assembly election in India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh (UP), had just concluded, putting in power the first single-party government in the state after the right-wing, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of 1991-92. This is an opportune moment to review the pattern of coalition politics in India and make some educated guesses about what is likely to happen during the two years before the next parliamentary elections, due to be held in April-May 2009.

Coalition and/or minority governments (some coalitions can be in a minority dependent on support from outside parties, such as the current UPA government's dependence on the Left) were rare between 1947 and 1989 when the Congress Party won majorities of seats in the Lok Sabha (Lower House), based on only pluralities of 40 to 48 percent of the vote. These victories were an artifact of the first-past-the-post electoral system's disproportional seat-vote ratio by which the leading party gets disproportionately more seats than votes in percentage terms. However, over the six elections from 1989 to 2004 the Congress's vote share fell steadily from just under 40 percent to 26 percent, each time retaining a plurality, sometimes by less than 1 percent but failing to convert to a majority of seats. The decline in the Congress vote has been matched by the rise in the BJP's vote from 11 percent in 1989 to 25 percent in 1998, sliding to 22 percent in 2004, and by the rise in the vote share of a range of overwhelmingly single-state parties called regional parties (which are not necessarily programmatically regionalist). The combined votes of the Congress and the BJP in the last two elections have been under 50 percent.

These three post-1989 mega-trends-the decline of the Congress and the rise of the BJP and regional parties-have led to minority situations in parliament and in turn to the formation of minority and/or coalition governments. Underlying this multi-partism is the gradual consolidation of political strength in an ever-larger number of states since 1967, and particularly since 1989, by a range of non-Congress parties, which may be the BJP, the Left parties or a range of regional parties, many of the latter representing linguistic, religious, and state-specific caste identities. Taking a long-term view, the regionalization and "ethnification" of parties on caste/religious lines and the formation of multi-party coalitions mark a shift toward a different kind of accommodative politics from the internally grand-coalitional politics practiced by the Congress when it was an encompassing umbrella party. The multi-party coalitions since 1996 signify a shift in the accommodation of group interests to a politics of presence with "ethnicized" parties participating in broad coalitions with "national" parties.

Today, there are only seven states out of twenty-eight (and Delhi with seven Lok Sabha seats) in which the two national parties, Congress and BJP, are the two leading parties in parliamentary elections: Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Arunachal Pradesh. They are the two leading parties but in the presence of significant third parties in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand, Manipur, and Goa. Beginning in 1998, and accelerating in the 1999 and 2004 elections, the party system has become very loosely bipolar, divided between the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition and the Congress-led UPA coalition, with a number of significant parties such as the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) (both of UP), the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (of Tamil Nadu), the Asom Gana Parishad (of Assam), and the Left parties, not formally part of either.

The full-term stability of the NDA and the endurance of the UPA for three years as of today, has also been due to the fact that coalitions in India since 1996 have been characterized to a large degree by spatial compatibility, that is, they consist of a patchwork quilt of parties that have state-specific bases and do not compete on each other's turf. This enables even minority coalitions dependent on outside support to last, combined with the fact that in the UPA's case the supporting Left parties, whatever their dissatisfaction with Congress policies do not wish to create an opportunity for the BJP to return to power.

Given the loosely bipolar national party system divided between the UPA and the NDA with a number of non-aligned parties in between, the implications of the BSP's victory in UP for national politics over the next two years are probably as follows. If the BSP successfully consolidates in UP, then we are likely to see further losses there for the Congress or the BJP or both (UP has eighty out of 543 elected Lok Sabha seats) and hence their further dependence on other states to make good the loss and on their coalition partners. Furthermore, if the BSP makes inroads into the largely Congress-inclined Scheduled Caste voters in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra in 2009, the UPA could be badly hit. Conversely, if the BSP is hit by anti-incumbency in UP, the Congress and the BJP could pick up some of the voters moving away from it.

There are three other important factors that will condition coalition politics in the run-up to the 2009 national elections. First, can the Congress preserve its coalition intact? Already, there have been three exits, the TRS in Andhra Pradesh which was crucial for the 2004 victory there, the MDMK in Tamil Nadu, and the JD(S) in Karnataka which broke with the Congress and wrested the state government from it by forming a coalition with the BJP. Two more partners are shaky-the NCP in Maharashtra and the PDP in Jammu and Kashmir. Second, how will the Congress and the BJP perform in the major state elections due by May 2009-Gujarat (containing twenty-six Lok Sabha seats) in late 2007, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, Meghalaya, Mizoram (nine Lok Sabha seats) during 2007-08, and Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Delhi by late 2008 (containing eighty-two Lok Sabha seats)? While the BJP is well positioned in Gujarat, will anti-incumbency set in against the ruling parties (BJP in all except in Delhi) in the other states by late 2008? If so, will it help the Congress in those major states in the national elections? Third, what will be the state of the economy, which has been in an unprecedented bull run for the past three years, and particularly the politically sensitive inflation and unemployment indicators?

All in all, it would appear that 2009 will most probably be a repeat of the loosely bipolar result of 2004, that is, an NDA and a UPA both falling short of a majority and dependent on support from one or more of a range of non-aligned parties with state-specific bases to form a government. Who rules will depend on the precise arithmetic of the result and pre- and post-electoral coalitions formed.

E. Sridharan is the Academic Director of the University of Pennsylvania Institute for the Advanced Study of India (UPIASI) in New Delhi; and since September 2005, he also serves as its Acting Secretary-General.


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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