In India, Power Creeps From Capital to Regions

POLITICS IS LOCAL

Communist-run Calcutta has spent the last 20 years perfecting the art of political graffiti. At the Communist Party of India (Marxist) headquarters on Alimuddin Street, posters from last month's general election attacking the former Congress Party government still adorn the walls of the rambling, rundown four-story building.

The deep-seated animosity between the two parties is evident in the caricatures of former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, who is portrayed as a secret supporter of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which for 13 tumultuous days led India's first Hindu nationalist government.

But in the past few weeks the political landscape has changed. Former enemies have become allies. The short-lived BJP regime was deprived of the support it needed to survive in power, paving the way for the country's first truly federal government.

The Congress Party and the Communists have put aside their ideological differences and have promised to support the minority United Front government of Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, which survived its first confidence vote in parliament last week.

Many still believe this hastily arranged political marriage of convenience won't be around to celebrate its first anniversary. India's earlier experiments with coalition governments have never lasted anywhere near a full five-year term. The country's new political topography appears etched with the same caste, linguistic, and regional fault lines that ruptured previous partnerships.

The defeated Congress Party still holds the balance of power, and despite its solemn vow to stand by Mr. Gowda could bring his government down and call for fresh elections at any moment.

Defenders of the multiparty United Front, however, say the current situation is more stable than in the past. The Front is dominated by regional parties, such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham in Tamil Nadu state and the Telegu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh state, which have stronger grass-roots support than national parties like Congress.

"State governments are nearest the people - whichever party is running them," says West Bengal state's chief minister, Jyoti Basu, whose fellow Communists also hold power in the states of Kerala and Tripura.

India's government is built from 25 states in a federal structure. But successive prime ministers in the capital, New Delhi, have eroded the autonomy of the states, particularly in the areas of economic decisionmaking and the distribution of tax revenues.

The overzealous application of a constitutional clause that allows the central government to dismiss state governments and take direct rule when needed to restore political stability also has fueled regional resentments.

The new influence of regional parties will result in a more genuine federal structure and ensure the United Front lasts a full term, says Communist Party (Marxist) politburo member Anil Biswas.

"This situation is different.... We have learned from the negative experience of the past. [In the past] there were no regional parties, only the conflicts of the national parties. Now there is a balance of forces," Mr. Biswas says. "These [regional] parties are bound to support this government for their own ... interests."

Regionalism is now a fact of life, says political scientist Rajni Kothari. "This election has shown that we are moving away from the centralized system of politics to one where regions and regional parties are coming into their own, where [state legislatures] are becoming more active, and where local units representing social or regional groups are becoming more significant."

The United Front has called for greater administrative and legislative autonomy for the states.

But there are those who worry that more power for regional parties will bring out the contradictions among the parties within the United Front and eventually lead to the breakup of India.

"I wouldn't be surprised if in 20 years India became a loose confederation of states, as you had after the collapse of the Soviet Union," says Rabi Bernard, a Madras-based political analyst.

Signs are already emerging that Gowda will have a difficult time keeping his Front united. To the dismay of the Communists, Gowda has not pursued recent corruption allegations against Mr. Rao in return for the continued backing of his Congress Party.

Still, none of the matchmakers involved in bringing the United Front to power wants an early election, as this could play into the hands of the BJP and bring Hindu nationalists back to power.

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