Numbers portability and political risotto
The political strategy of alliances in India is frequently reminiscent of the issues faced with telecom services. Often towards the end of a regime’s tenure there are call drops —the phenomenon when parties perceiving an advantage choose to exit alliances. Not every party has political meteorologists, and therefore often parties are faced with the phenomenon of missed calls—choices which result in the parties being on the wrong side of power. To redress this, like for mobile subscribers, there is the facility of number portability—which allows parties to use their seat count to switch sides, choose convenience over conviction.
Proximity sensors and gyroscopes of political parties went aflutter this week when TRS chief and Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao went about seeking meetings and speaking to party leaders to form a non-Congress, non-BJP front. By no means is this a rearguard action. The regional parties see a window of opportunity in their assessment of what the results could throw up on May 23—and like astute hedge fund managers, party leaders are going through what investment managers call market and price discovery.
In fact, the most appropriate phraseology for the process is what the market deploys—the filing of the “Red Herring” prospectus to woo interested parties to invest in an alliance. As with the public issues there were roadshows, in this case meetings in Kolkata and Delhi between regional chieftains. Like with the initial offerings there was expression of interest but no binding offers. Just as investors do before an IPO, the parties chose to await the pricing of the issue, i.e. the Lok Sabha results.
The air in Delhi and in Chennai has been rife with speculation about the why and who of Rao’s efforts. Be that as it may, there are at least four different track-two processes in progress between regional parties and national parties. The players who will have a punt on futures and options are located in the north, east and the south—the national capital is abuzz with permutations and combinations. The political chefs are scripting an a la carte of recipes even as they await the results which will determine the ingredients of the political risotto.
Every decade since the sixties has seen the emergence of regional power in India. In 1967, the Congress tally came down by 78 seats (with the Swatantra Party and Bharatiya Jan Sangh winning 44 and 35 seats, respectively) and it lost power in eight states to regional coalitions—in Bengal, Bihar, UP, Punjab, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. In 1977, it was a combination of regional and national parties which ousted the Indira Gandhi government after the civil strife and the Emergency. The ouster of Rajiv Gandhi in 1989 was propelled by allegations of corruption in defence deals and drought-triggered agrarian stress. The rise of V P Singh could not have been possible without the heft of Devi Lal, N T Rama Rao, Ramakrishna Hegde and the Left Front. Similarly, the coming together of the ragtag coalition called United Front was made possible by the rise of regional parties, including TDP, SP and the Moopanar-led Tamil Maanila Congress, along with Janata Dal.
These coalitions, however, flailed and failed like a script post the IPO—primarily because there was no binding force beyond the lure of power and pelf. There have been successful coalitions though—in 1991, 1999 and 2004. In each of these instances, the critical factor was the presence of a political mentor and a common cause that sustained the regime. The 1991 Congress government was a seasonal coalition. Rao deployed economic crisis and the threat of the BJP’s rise successfully—both against insiders and the opposition. The 1999 Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime was sustained by his articulation of nationalism and adherence to consensual coalition dharma. In the 2004 elections, the BJP and Congress together won only 283 seats—state parties and sub-regional entities won 174 seats. The Congress-led UPA I was a coalition of over a dozen entities and lasted the full term sustained by identity and ideology—common cause of rights-based entitlements.
Popular perception has it that coalitions are bad for the economic health of the country. Fact is the 1991 reforms were introduced under a coalition, the big tax reforms came under the short-lived United Front regime, the Vajpayee government, a coalition of over 20 parties, pushed spending on education and infrastructure, UPA I delivered three years of 9-plus per cent growth. Indeed, even the Modi Sarkar is a coalition by design if not by default and has delivered on roads, on opening up of sectors, and IBC and GST—even if with warts and all. The GDP graph across 30 years doesn’t show coalitions in a poor light.
Any theory on the failure or success of coalitions depends on the context of necessity and conditions of sufficiency. The cause of worry cannot be the coming together of parties—after all, a country as diverse as India can and has produced differentiated verdicts. Nor can it be about timing. Political alliances in India are of two kinds—the pre-poll alliance and then the number portability-enabled post-poll alliance. What should worry Indians is a post-paid alliance—where the sustenance of the coalition depends on which party gets what. It is, after all, the ingredients which make the risotto palatable.
Author of Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India