Left out in India

The world’s longest-ruling democratically elected Communist parties have been voted out of office as results of four key Indian state legislative elections were released today.

As has been widely anticipated since at least the dust-up in the central government over the Left Front’s resistance to the Indo-US nuclear agreement, the West Bengal result shows a crushing defeat in the Left’s most important stronghold. In the 2009 national Lok Sabha (parliament) elections, an alliance headed by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) dominated the state. In 2009, as well as in these state elections, the TMC was in a pre-electoral alliance with the federal ruling party, the Indian National Congress (INC). TMC’s leader, Mamata Banerjee, is the federal Railways Minister in the coalition cabinet of the INC-led United Progressive Alliance.

The TMC-INC alliance has won 226 seats out of 294. The TMC itself won 184. The various parties of the Left Front, which has ruled the state for 34 years, will have only 60.

In Kerala, another long-time Left stronghold in the southwest, the result was close between the United Democratic Front (UDF), led by the INC, and the Left Democratic Front. Projections of seats kept swinging between the two fronts, but in the end the UDF emerged with 72 seats out of 140. Of these 72, the INC will have 38 and the Kerala Muslim League 20. (Several smaller pre-poll allies split the rest.) The Communist Party of India (Marxist) ((Yes, that is it’s name; the parenthetical term being needed to distinguish it from various other Communist Parties in India that perhaps are not Marxist enough, in some folks’ eyes.)) will have the most seats in the Kerala assembly of any single party, 45, but it does not matter, given that the pre-poll UDF won a majority.

Another southern state, Tamil Nadu, saw a setback for Congress, as one of the main Dravidian parties displaced the other. The AIADMK and its pre-poll allies (which include left parties as junior partners) defeated the Congress-allied DMK. The outgoing government was a DMK minority cabinet, backed by the INC.

In Assam, in the northeast, Congress scored a big reelection victory. It will have 76 of the assembly’s 126 seats. The opposition regional party, Asam Gana Parishad (AGP), and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were unable to conclude a pre-poll alliance to challenge the INC.

The run-up to the elections saw some interesting brinksmanship between the INC and its allies. The AIADMK and, especially the TMC, held out for many more districts than the INC was initially willing to concede. Because these are pre-electoral alliances to contest single-seat districts (decided by FPTP), the key to how many seats each alliance partner wins lies in how many winnable districts it gets to contest. The TMC forced the INC to back down, leaving the latter with far fewer seats than it originally demanded as a bottom line, and thereby underscoring how dependent the INC is on its state-based partners. In the dealing, however, the TMC had to trade off an attempt to expand its base of operation further into neighboring Assam. ((Like many an Indian regional party, TMC harbors aspirations of becoming a “national” party; in fact, its full name is the All-India Trinamool Congress. Similarly, the “AI” in the AIADMK name in Tamil Nadu also means “All India.”))

The Congress Party seems to be steadily rebuilding its strength in recent years, but it remains reliant on regional parties to do so in some key states. Its main rival for power nationally, the BJP, was scarcely a factor in these states (other than contributing to vote-splitting in Assam).

All eyes have already shifted to the next huge prize, Uttar Pradesh, which has state elections next year. Neither Congress nor the BJP currently has much a foothold there, and the main competition is between two state parties that have declined to join national alliances. The intrigue is already getting intense, with protests and counter-protests over state government land acquisition for development projects, ((Similar conflicts fueled the TNC-INC opposition to the Left in West Bengal)) and Rahul Gandhi’s midnight ride.

7 thoughts on “Left out in India

  1. What is the seat to vote ratio? Do Indian state elections function like as typical FPTP elections do?

    Would India be wise to consider changing it’s FPTP electoral system to a system of PR? Would their be any advantages and disadvantages to a PR system in India?

    I do know that India uses STV for it’s indirectly elected Senate.

    At least with the FPTP system in India, the parties have to form pre-poll alliances to win seats as to not to split the vote.

    Why doesn’t Canada or other countries that use FPTP do this? Why can’t the Liberals and NDP just form a pre-poll alliance instead of merging into one party? And for the British, Why can’t the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats form a pre-poll alliance for the next election?

    It’s looks like West Bengal is another place where the dominant party has been ousted big time. It seems like dominant parties from established democracies to developing countries are suffering chronic meltdowns.

  2. I suspect stand down agreements dont really happen in Canada or the UK for historical reasons-the spectre of the collapse of the British Liberals (from dominant party to lingering limbs dependent on Conservative sufferance). Its hard to come back from coming third in a system like FPTP-thats why the Canadian Liberals are in a dangerous place right now, and why the old Progressive Conservatives couldnt come back from their wipeout.

  3. The Lib Dems are likely to suffer quite badly at the next general election so I see no reason why the Conservatives would want to seek a stand down agreement or a “coupon election” (where both parties in the coalition can run candidates in a constituency, but only one candidate actually gets the coalition’s endorsement). Plus there are loads of people in both parties who are pretty unhappy with the coalition arrangement and are only putting up with it due to the perceived lack of alternatives – they’ll be happy when it’s time to part ways.

  4. If a party system has a mix of national and regional parties, it is much easier to get stand-down arrangements under FPTP than if the smaller parties are programmatically distinctive national parties.

    For instance, the NDP (in its third-party days) and the Liberals/LibDems exist because they offer competing visions to the big two parties on what the policies of the national government should be.

    On the other hand, the Trinamool Congress and the Dravida Munetra Kazhagam exist because they want (a) to control the state government, and (b) for the national government to provide revenue transfers and policy autonomy to their region.

    In this latter context, it is much easier for the national party and the regional parties to make seat trades, and to get their voters to follow along. No one is being asked to give up programmatic/ideological distinctiveness so much as to make a pragmatic bargain that, if successful, will lead to more revenues and autonomy for the regional and local governments (as well as a greater chance at national power for the national partner to the transaction).

    To the obvious question of why, then, neither the Liberals nor Conservatives ever made stand-down agreements with the Bloc Quebecois, the answer is that this would have cause ideological/reputational costs outside Quebec. That is, in Canada the regional party (BQ) is separatist and the position of Quebec in the federation is actually an ideologically divisive issue in Canada as a whole. There is simply nothing comparable in India with respect to the position of West Bengal or Tamil Nadu in the federation.

  5. > “this would have cause[d] ideological/reputational costs outside Quebec”

    This helps explain why (eg) the NSW Greens refused to preference Labor in the 2011 State election. Far from “getting additional votes” by expressing preferences (ah, No2AV: where would psephology, queen of the sciences, be without your contributions to the sum of human knowledge?), a party may find it more advantageous not to (be seen to) be directing its preferences to an ideological cousin (or third or fourth cousin) who is viewed as “toxic” by the voters – either ideologically toxic like One Nation 10-15 years ago, or simply incompetent like NSW Labor in the past 4-5 years.

    In the NSW Greens case, this was heightened by two factors:

    (a) Liberal leader Barry O’Farrell is seen as a “small-L” or “wet” centrist [*] whom the Greens can work with if need be.

    (b) Opinion polls consistently made it very clear that Labor had no chance. Green preferences were unlikely to help keep the Coalition out.

    So – if the Libs had been led by, say, Tony Abbott or Richard Court, and/or if the result had seemed close (eg 1990 federal election), the Greens may well have “held their noses” and asked/ told their supporters to give Labor their second preference. But not in this case. They didn’t want to be seen to be standing too close to a sinking ship (so to speak).

    [*] “Wet” isn’t a very useful term any more, at least in Australia. In the original Thatcher Cabinet, it meant “one nation” Tories who were socially permissive but economically regulationist. In Australia, the main divide within the Liberals is social conservatives like Howard and Abbott who are occasionally willing to spend and/or raise taxes to subsidise traditional families (eg, maternity leave) vs economic and social libertarians like Turnbull, Coonan, Washer, etc who see that there’s money to be made or saved from stem cell research, abortions and RU486 for single mothers on welfare, the pink tourism dollar, etc.

  6. The way that Indian parties handle FPTP reminds me of the classic Indian crack about bureaucracy: “You English invented bureaucracy, but we Indians perfected it.” They create complicated electoral alliances that parties in other UK-style parliamentary countries can only drool over. Often they don’t “stand down,” they run token candidates, but somehow everyone knows not to vote for the token candidates; unlike Canada, where tactical voting works badly since many urban voters don’t even know what constituency they live in.

    As to separatism, the original Dravida Kazhagam and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam were separatist from 1944 to 1962. During that time, in 1953 its future leader Muthuvel Karunanidhi had a son whom he named Stalin (Muthuvel Karunanidhi Stalin, better known as M. K. Stalin.) Karunanidhi was Chief Minister until his very recent defeat, even though he is 86, but his son Stalin was Deputy Chief Minister.

    So you might say the same elections that ousted the Communist/Marxists in West Bengal also dethroned Stalin in Tamil Nadu. But that would be quite unfair, since Stalin is no more a Stalinist than the West Bengal government was any more Marxist than Tony Blair.

  7. The nearest thing to a stand down agreement in the US must be Bernie Sanders and the Democrats in Vermont-the Dems didnt run a candidate against Sanders for his House seat, once he had won it, and didnt run against him for his Senate seat either.

    However Sanders or his state party allies the Progressives didnt run for the vacant House seat when he went forward for the Senate, which was won by a Democrat, who became Governor this year-without a Progressive opponent, and with a few prominent people identified with the Progressive party winning office in the legislature as Democrstic-Progressive fusion candidates, Though I suppose thats more like absorbtion than a stand down…

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