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Why Congress’ seat adjustments for Lok Sabha polls may be counterpruductive

By Bharat Dogra* 

It is often stated that seat adjustments at the time of elections by opposition parties are very important in India. However, these benefits are easier stated than realized, as satisfactory seat adjustments can be very difficult to achieve in the real-life political scene of the country. Even when leaders manage to work this out, this does not always have the intended or desired result.
One factor is that leaders of various political parties have to satisfy their own election ticket aspirants at the constituency level. A local leader may have worked quite hard for years to prepare for election, and also helped the party top leadership in various ways to secure the party ticket when the election time comes. 
So he/she may be quite upset when told that you cannot contest the election and must instead extend your support to someone from another party and ask all your supporters also to do so. He may even be asked to extend his support to someone he does not like and in fact may have criticized several times in the course of party politics and for other reasons. Angry and frustrated due to this, he may even defect, or else more quietly work for the defeat of the imposed candidate from an allied party.     
Strong advocates of seat adjustments assume that the top leaders of various opposition political parties can take decisions on seat adjustments in one or more meetings, and their party members will faithfully or timidly follow what they have decided. In fact there can be many small revolts—some visible and loud, some less visible and carried out quietly.
Various political parties have their own compulsions. If a party is strong in just one or two states, then it may feel that it cannot give up many seats here if it is to ensure some significant representation in the Lok Sabha. On the other, hand a national party is likely to feel that it must maintain at least its presence on the election map of many states to remain looking like a national party regardless of its weak position in these states. 
The Congress, for instance, may just now be too weak in some important states to hope to win many seats, but if it does not contest elections here in a significant number of seats and its members have to engage mainly in supporting allies, then its membership and organizational base, its capacity to contest elections here as serious claimants may be further weakened, and for this reason alone it may feel the necessity to contest some of even those seats where its chances may not be rated high by impartial observers.
This brings us to another aspect of a multi-party democracy that not all smaller political parties necessarily contest elections with serious hope of winning. If they are able to enthuse their members and supporters in the electoral process to such an extent as to get a certain number of votes considered respectable by them, then their objective is achieved. Some political parties may also be guided by the objective of gaining some sort of official as well non-official recognition as national and state-level political parties by registering a presence of some significance in many constituencies.
If to display unity leaders of political parties announce seat adjustments but this is not supported at the grassroots by their members, then the desired transfer of votes in favor of the ally to whom the seat has been ‘surrendered’ may not take place. 
Another problem with seat adjustments within the existing constraints and realities is that these take up too much of the time of various opposition leaders in the important days leading up to the elections. There can be many meetings and much uncertainty. 
Some of the efforts can lead to a lot of bickering and disturb the existing relationships of some political parties instead of improving them. To some extent this can be seen today even before actual seat adjustments have started, and in a few states already the chances of seat adjustments are appearing to be remote.
If Congress does not contest elections in a significant number of seats, its membership and organizational base will dwindle
In effect seat adjustments are ironically easier to achieve when the dominance of one of the political parties is well-established and the dominant role of one leader is also widely recognized. This may not sound like the democratic ideal at all, but this is the existing real-life situation in India at present.
The opposition parties of course will go ahead with some seat adjustment efforts, but they must not place too much faith in them to avoid frustration and disappointment at an early stage.
What is easier to achieve is a relationship of mutual respect, trust and cooperation among various political parties which may be useful after the election results are out. 
A more practical approach may be for leaders of various opposition parties to appeal to their state units to concentrate scarce resources only on those seats where they are strong, and to support other good opposition candidates elsewhere. This may result in achieving some limited, automatic seat adjustment on the basis of internal understanding and avoiding any revolt.
Yet another highly credible and useful effort may be to try to reach a consensus on a program based on justice, equality, peace, inter-faith harmony, secularism, democracy and protection of environment.
Let opposition parties make efforts for seat adjustments to the extent they can but they should not underestimate the various problems and constraints. If they succeed, fine, but if they do not, they should not shed too many tears or indulge in blame-game as this will further weaken their cause.
Also, why not accept multi-party democracy for its reality and inevitability of multi-cornered contests in most constituencies? This is not always a bad thing and sometimes throws up opportunities for new and low-resource contestants that would not exist in just two-sided contests. 
Just see how the two party system in the USA often works in such a way as to deny real choice to many of the more socially aware people who feel that both sides are frequently on the side of injustice. A multi-party democracy can in fact be healthier and more democratic, but we also need to work hard to achieve its more positive and desirable impacts.
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*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include “When the Two Streams Met”, “Man over Machine” and “Protecting Earth for Children”

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