Indian Election Sidelines Regional Parties, Strengthens Congress Party

Anjana Pasricha

The clear victory for the Congress-led alliance in recent general elections has sidelined an array of regional and left leaning parties, which came to the center stage of Indian politics over the last two decades as national parties lost influence. The elections have also paved the way for the Congress Party to recover its position as India's dominant political force.  

Days after the Congress Party-led alliance won comfortably in the general elections, Mayawati, the head of a caste-based regional group known as the Bahujan Samaj Party, pledged her party's support to the coalition.  

Mayawati says she is making the offer to extend a friendly hand to the Congress Party "without any conditions."

Hers is among several regional and caste based parties which have volunteered to support the Congress-led alliance, which is returning for its second term in office.

This is not what any of these parties had expected to do. Rather they had nurtured ambitions of being wooed by the Congress Party, and driving a hard bargain such as prized seats in the Cabinet in return for their support.

Their optimism stemmed from forecasts that the results in this year's election would be even more fractured than it has been in past elections. Since 1991, India has been governed by unwieldy coalition governments, dependent on an array of small parties for their survival.

But the 2009 elections reversed the trend. The Congress Party-led alliance confounded all forecasts, and has emerged slightly short of a majority - but strong enough to survive without the support of regional parties.     

A professor at Delhi University and political analyst, Mahesh Rangarajan, says regional parties have been effectively sidelined.

"Unlike the last two governments, regional parties will not be not be in a strong bargaining position. Yes, the pendulum has swung away from the regional parties. It has not got back all the way, but it is a significant shift from their power-broking position in the past," said Rangarajan.

Communist parties, which played a prominent role by propping up the last Congress-led government, also suffered a huge setback. They have been trounced in their strongholds of Kerala and West Bengal, with their numbers in parliament slipping from 61 lawmakers to 24 - their worst showing in three decades.

Political analysts say popular resistance to the leftist government's efforts to acquire farmland for industry triggered a backlash against the Communists in West Bengal.

The decline of the regional and left parties has benefited the Congress Party, which has won 206 seats on it own in the 543-member house - up from 145 in the last election.

The Congress Party - once known s India's "grand old party" - saw its fortunes plummet in the last two decades as its presence shrank through large parts of the country.

Political analysts say the party has reaped the benefits of implementing policies during its last term such as a massive $5 billion work scheme which promises 100 days of work to poor people every year. At the same time, its commitment to modernizing the economy won the support of the middle class, which has benefited hugely from the high economic growth witnessed until last year.  

Political analyst Rangarajan says these elections revived the appeal of the Congress Party among a cross section of voters, but warns that though regional parties are down, they are not out.     

"Definitely the voters seem to think that a cohesive government where one party is more or less in control is preferable to one which is pushed around by regional pressures. But we should be careful. There are very important regional players who are still there, and they may always bounce back," said  Rangarajan.

The Congress party admits that strengthening the party remains a major priority. It is focusing on large, populous states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the heartland of India - which send many lawmakers to parliament. The party has already made a significant comeback in Uttar Pradesh, from where it had been virtually wiped out by caste based parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party led by Mayawati. In this election, it won 21 seats out of 80 after it decided to strike out on its own instead of aligning with regional parties as in the past.

Rahul Gandhi, the son of the powerful Congress Party president, Sonia Gandhi, who crafted the winning strategy, says more needs to be done.

"We need an organization of young people and that is what we are going to build over the next two, three, five years," he said.  

Analysts say that rebuilding the party base is critical. But they say this will only happen if the new government provides the governance and policy measures which people expect it to deliver now that's its hands are no longer tied by an array of small partners.

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