04 September 1999

Bipolar Polity : Citizen the Loser in Two-party System

4 September 1999
The Times of India

Bipolar Polity

Citizen the Loser in Two-party System


ONE of the most significant developments in Indian politics in the 1990s
is the clear emergence of bipolarity built around the BJP and the
Congress. This is a system in which policy differences are virtually
nonexistent and theory and ideology play an extremely limited role.
Union home minister L K Advani has publicly welcomed the trend towards a
`two party system' as a sign of the Indian polity coming of age. While
his assessment may be self-serving, the feeling that such a system will
bring stability and make democracy more robust is widespread.

Demise of Third Front

As an explanation for why Indian politics is becoming bipolar, political
scientists usually invoke Duverger's Law. This `law' says that a
two-party system (or more generally a bipolar polity) is the inevitable
outcome of a first-past-the-post electoral system. Even though the `law'
appears empirically robust, it is not very useful to argue that
bipolarism in India is merely a mechanical product of electoral
institutions. These institutions have been around for more than 50 years
whereas bipolarity is a recent phenomenon. Clearly, there must be other
factors at work as well.

In political terms, there is no doubt that the demise of the `third
front' has cleared the last barrier in the way of the two-party
`system'. Virtually every erstwhile constituent has now abandoned the
fiction of third frontism and allied itself with either the BJP or the
Congress. Even the Communist parties -- which once prided themselves on
their `equidistance' from the communalism of the one and the corruption
of the other -- have today settled comfortably into the suffocating
embrace of the Congress.

The fundamental weakness of the third front was that for all its
espousal of `social justice', it did not have a positive agenda. One
section of the front was motivated by anti-Congressism and the other by
the defence of `secularism' conceived of purely in declaratory,
tautological terms. Ultimately, even these planks proved insufficient to
maintain a middle ground.

Moreover, the intermediate strata which make up the support base of many
of the third front's potential adherents -- middle to rich farmers,
regional business groups, upwardly mobile `backward' castes -- have been
unable to consolidate themselves as a political force at the national
level. The liberalisation process, the development of capitalism in the
countryside, the unevenness of growth in spatial terms, and the
financial clout of the Centre have all created a situation in which
rural and regional elites are increasingly anxious to share political
power in New Delhi. In addition, fiscal pressures -- arising from the
refusal of state governments to tax agricultural income or charge rich
farmers realistic user fees for water and electricity -- are impelling
regional elites to seek an understanding with the pan-Indian parties
which have the best shot at controlling the Centre.

Looking to the future, will a bipolar polity produce stability? In the
short-term, perhaps, but not in the long-run. The political economy of
reforms will prove to be the most crucial factor in the trajectory
Indian politics takes in the next decade. In particular, there are four
areas of tension -- between rural elites and big capital, between the
organised workforce and industry, between regional and pan-Indian elite
and between Indian and foreign capital -- and how these play out will
determine the stability of the system. Regional contradictions arising
from uneven economic development across India add a fifth imponderable.

Regional Interests

Both the Congress and BJP have positioned themselves as the party of the
pan-Indian industrial and financial elite. Their outlook and mentality
is inherently centralising. Their backers define a stable government as
one which can move quickly on the ``unfinished business'' of reforms.
Exit policy, privatisation, an end to small-scale industry protection,
abolition of `subsidies' to agriculture in the form of cheap or free
electricity and water and cheap fertilisers, and the calibrated opening
up of various sectors like insurance. However, neither party will be in
a position to deliver on these.

The BJP, whose prospects look better than the Congress', can only come
to power on the basis of a coalition that strings together a variety of
intermediate and regional interests. But instability is inherent to this
system because rural and regional elites have interests that do not
always converge with the interests of big capital. Moreover, the formal
democratic system, despite all its inadequacies, continues to ensure
that popular concerns -- about employment, the lack of social services,
etc -- cannot entirely be ignored either. Notwithstanding the BJP's
claim that it wants coalitions now and forever, its long-term project
clearly is one in which it would like to emerge as a decisive force in
all states and eliminate the regional entities as a factor in the Centre
so that it no longer has to make compromises on its core policies. The
BJP can always buy stability through a reconfiguration of its coalition
but ultimately its centralising impulses will come into clash with
regional aspirations.

Finally, it is worth asking how bipolarity will affect the quality of
our democracy. Most likely, it will make it worse. This is not so much a
question of narrowing options -- multiple parties do not necessarily
translate into multiple policy outcomes -- but of stabilising a system
of governance that is inherently unrepresentative and which is easily
dominated by economic elites. Moreover, by circumscribing the political
arena and making it more rigid, a two-party system makes it even harder
for ordinary citizens to influence policies. The threshold for groups of
citizens to make their voices heard rises to a level beyond the reach of

Authoritarian Impulse

The BJP's conception of stability is of a formal, and ultimately
authoritarian kind. Its first choice in terms of institutions remains
the presidential system or the Westminster model based on a rigid
two-party system with total dominance of the executive. Its other
proposal -- fixed-term Parliaments -- is equally stifling. Far from
enhancing the role of ordinary citizens in governance, these outcomes
will marginalise them even further.

Fifty years after independence, the central problematic of Indian
politics remains the empowerment of the electorate so that its role is
not limited to casting a ballot every five years. Citizens must control
their representatives and have a dominant influence over policy
outcomes. Stability will only come with such a system. All attempts to
impose stability within the present polity will either fail or diminish
further an already constricted democratic space.

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