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India: Smaller Parties Hope to Play Critical Role in Elections - 2004-04-13


India's two main parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress, are racing to strike alliances with regional political groups as the country prepares to hold parliamentary elections later this month.

The Samajwadi Party governs the politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India. The state will choose nearly 15 percent of the lawmakers in the lower house of Parliament in national elections that start April 20.

The Samajwadi party is little known outside its own state - but in recent weeks it has been under an intense media spotlight as it spurned offers by the opposition Congress party to contest the election in Uttar Pradesh as its ally. The regional party rejected an alliance because Congress had first approached a rival organization.

Like Congress, the Samajwadi party is a staunch opponent of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party. Its leader, Amar Singh, is confident the Samajwadi can play a crucial role in national politics. "We are the number one party, the most dominant force in the state of Uttar Pradesh, which is largest in the country, maybe after BJP and Congress Party ours will be the real third force," he says.

Political analysts say Mr. Singh nurtures hopes of putting together a government should the ruling Hindu nationalists fail to muster a majority.

Mr. Singh's confidence stems from the increasing clout that regional parties command in national elections. Smaller parties control more than one-third of parliament, rule more than half of India's 28 states, and play a key role in forming the federal government. These parties have emerged as powerful kingmakers because neither of India's two main national parties - the Congress party nor the Bharatiya Janata Party - has won an overall majority over the past decade.

The BJP catapulted to prominence in the nineteen nineties on the back of a Hindu nationalist agenda. It has risen from holding a handful of seats to being the single largest party in recent elections.

The Congress party dominated Indian politics for nearly 45 years after the country became independent in 1947. It traditionally relied on support from minority groups and lower castes, and supported secular policies. But regional groups have now grabbed much of this power base.

As a result, says party spokesman Kapil Sibal, the Congress party has no choice but to seek regional allies. "We have to engulf them, wrap them, embrace them," he says. "We believe that at this point in our polity no single party can get an absolute majority, and so therefore seeking allies has become a political necessity and why should we shy away from that necessity."

The Congress party has managed to firm up alliances in several states such as Tamil Nadu in the south and Maharashtra in the west. By trying to strike deals before the polls, the Congress party is following a strategy the BJP used with huge success in the last general election.

In 1999, the BJP formed alliances with regional groups before the election, and contested the polls under the banner of the National Democratic Alliance - a group of about 22 parties. Those parties make up as much as 40 percent of the present government.

Not all of those allies are still with the BJP. Some have abandoned it, others have joined in - and the process of shaping the alliance continues. In states where its allies are powerful, the BJP does not field its own candidates, making it easier for the regional parties to win.

Law Minister Arun Jaitley says that limits the BJP's direct reach in large parts of the country, but national parties have to adapt to strong regional groups. "There are regional aspirations, which make people throw up regional groups," he says. "These groups are strong for their region ? we are expanding in those regions, but our friendly parties have a space, and it is no part of our policy to just take them out of that space."

Political analysts say regional parties have become strong because national groups cannot effectively address local aspirations in a country of a billion plus people with vast religious, ethnic and caste diversities. Independent analyst Inder Malhotra says regional parties will continue to be powerful for some years to come. "More and more the concerns are becoming caste-based, parochial," he says. "This is the process which is continuing and ? fission rather than fusion is the main activity of Indian politics."

Political analysts are divided on whether the increasing clout of regional groups is a good thing. Some say a fragmented Parliament has made deal-making and horse-trading a primary focus of Indian politics. Others say coalition governments have worked better than expected for India, giving a greater voice to all parts of the country. They also point out that in the past five years, the BJP's allies were able to ensure that the party set aside some of its controversial Hindu-nationalist policies.

Opinion polls indicate the BJP led coalition is likely to return to power.

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