Forecasts have already begun with regard to the likely outcome of India's upcoming election in 2014, the largest election in human history. However, even the best psephologists should realize that this will be a tough one to predict.
Most commentators are thinking of the 2014 election as a contest between Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress and Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Most surveys predict that the number of parliamentary seats held by the Congress party will drop dramatically, from its current tally of 206 of the total 543 seats in the lower house to below the 150 mark, due to the dramatic slowdown in the Indian economy, corruption scandals, and an overall policy paralysis over the last three years.
These surveys also suggest that the principal opposition party, the BJP, is likely to emerge as the single largest party. Yet, it remains unclear whether the BJP will be able to muster up enough allies to form a government. (Since 1991, no party has secured an absolute majority of 272 seats on its own, so the dominant parties have had to form coalition governments.) The main reason is the unacceptability of prime ministerial candidate Modi to many regional parties, due to the blot of the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in his home province, Gujarat, one of the worst incidents of Hindu-Muslim violence in modern India. Meanwhile, the Third Front, a group of 14 regional parties, have been trying to position themselves as a non-Congress, non-BJP secular alternative.
In this situation, there is a strong possibility that a group of regional leaders will receive Congress support from the outside to form a government. If that occurs, India could end up with a non-Congress, non-BJP prime minister. A lot will depend on the numbers that regional parties can muster. If the Samajwadi Party or Bahujan Samaj Party of Uttar Pradesh can surpass 30 seats, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati, the respective leaders of these parties, may have a chance of leading such an arrangement.
Two other regional leaders are thought to be strong contenders for prime minister, were such a coalition to come to fruition: Nitish Kumar, chief minister of Bihar and a member of the Janata Dal (United) (JD(U)) party, and J. Jayalalitha, chief minister of Tamil Nadu. Kumar is perceived as a strong contender because he has publicly taken on Modi and has visibility outside Bihar due to his stellar performance as chief minister. Jayalalitha could emerge as a candidate because she may be in a position to win over 30 seats in the lower house. Her party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), may emerge as the third largest party after the BJP and the Congress, making her a natural choice for a coalition supported by the Congress.
But were such a front to emerge with Jayalalitha or Kumar at the helm, many regional parties may refuse to support them. This includes the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu, which is a bitter rival of the AIADMK, and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) in Bihar, which is a rival of the JD(U). It is also unclear if Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, and India's leftist parties would be part of such an alliance.
Whether such a fractious coalition is the best solution for India is debatable, especially given the economic downturn, security challenges, and complex political issues that plague the country. Past experiments with a regional party-led government -- such as the governments led by V.P. Singh in 1989, H.D. Deve Gowda in 1996, and Inder Kumar Gujral in 1997 -- did not last for more than a year. The arrangement has typically led to general policy paralysis, as the ideological differences and ego clashes between leaders of various regional parties create obstacles to governing. However, it is also true that regional politics have changed in the last decade, with some chief ministers gaining prominence and developing broader visions.
Kingmakers in a global court
In the past, Third Front prime ministers have been accused of having a narrow vision blinkered by a regional perspective. To date, many blame I.K. Gujral, the prime minister from 1997 to 1998, for being too soft on Pakistan due to his misplaced Punjabi nostalgia. If a Third Front government led by one of India's regional satraps does come to the fore in 2014, how would it deal with foreign policy issues, both in its neighborhood and beyond?
Two of the likely dark horses, Kumar and Jayalalitha, also happen to govern border states, which has likely influenced their foreign policy experience and thinking. The northern state of Bihar, led by Kumar, shares a border with Nepal, while Jayalalitha's Tamil Nadu shares a maritime border with Sri Lanka. Kumar has tried to reach out to Nepal, inviting then-Nepalese Prime Minister Baburam Bhattaraito to the Global Bihar Summit in Patna in 2012. He visited Pakistan in November 2012 and met with senior political leaders. Kumar also visited Bhutan in 2011 and has been earnestly trying to build economic ties between Bihar and Bhutan.
Jayalalitha has been proactive in influencing New Delhi's Sri Lanka policy, though many argue that this has harmed India's national interests. Many in Jayalalitha's home state of Tamil Nadu are sympathetic to Sri Lanka's Tamil population, a large number of whom died or disappeared in the Sri Lankan Civil War. Along with the DMK, Jayalalitha put pressure on the central government to support a U.N. resolution criticizing Sri Lanka's rights record. She also played a part in convincing current Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to boycott a meeting of the heads of government of Commonwealth Nations, which was held in Sri Lanka in mid-November.
Beyond their role in neighborhood policy, both chief ministers have a record of dealing with global powers that will give them a deeper understanding of foreign policy. Tamil Nadu has close links with the United States, Japan, and China, and Jayalalitha met with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011. Kumar has developed close links with Japan and Singapore through the Nalanda University set up in his state.
For better or for worse, regional ties may affect how these leaders view certain foreign policy issues. In the realm of economic diplomacy, this may be an advantage: Kumar and Jayalalitha already have a comfort level with important countries like the United States, Japan, and Singapore. They may also realize the advantages of giving leeway to chief ministers on issues of trade and commerce, unlike those who believe this is a threat to New Delhi's authority. On emotive issues, however, regional ties may be a disadvantage: They may not look at issues such as those concerning Sri Lanka and Nepal in a nuanced manner.
While regional ties are likely to influence the future leader's policy stance, they do not preclude a broader foreign policy vision. Many chief ministers have played a positive role in promoting India's ties with the outside world, and, especially in a coalition era, the prime minister's regional perspective will have to be tempered with the views of other constituents. But while the regional dimension may not be a decisive factor in influencing policy, it will undoubtedly be an important one.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a public policy scholar with The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy in Chennai, India.
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