Small fish in a big pond

Small parties remain outsiders in their own State, but can be coalition partners at the Centre

Published - March 01, 2019 12:15 am IST

PMK Youth Wing leader Anbumani Ramadoss had a tough time justifying PMK's decision to align with the AIADMK, at a press conference in Chennai on Monday ( February 25, 2019). His response that the AIADMK led ailliance agreed to look into the ten-point charter of demands laid by his party did not cut ice. Questions about whether he still maintains AIADMK government as corrupt, would he still object to Jaya memorial at Marina Beach or campaign with TN Health Minister Vijayabhaskar who has been linked to the Gutkha scam, infuriated him.
Photo : Bijoy Ghosh

PMK Youth Wing leader Anbumani Ramadoss had a tough time justifying PMK's decision to align with the AIADMK, at a press conference in Chennai on Monday ( February 25, 2019). His response that the AIADMK led ailliance agreed to look into the ten-point charter of demands laid by his party did not cut ice. Questions about whether he still maintains AIADMK government as corrupt, would he still object to Jaya memorial at Marina Beach or campaign with TN Health Minister Vijayabhaskar who has been linked to the Gutkha scam, infuriated him.
Photo : Bijoy Ghosh

Political parties in India operate in a federal system. They seek power at the local, State and national levels. Holding office at the State level is the primary goal of most parties. Yet, a succession of hung parliaments from 1989 to 2014 created the expectation that small parties, maybe with a single MP, might be vital for the governing coalition. Cabinet posts and/or other inducements encouraged political entrepreneurs to form parties, most of which remain small and did not grow into regional parties large enough to govern their own States. We define a small party as capable of winning a few seats in a State Assembly and occasionally in Parliament. Small parties do not have the heft to lead a State-level government and may lack opportunities to get a place in a State-level coalition government. Ironically, fragmented national legislatures give small parties more opportunities to participate in coalitions in Delhi. This national toehold helps many of them survive while they have little success in their own States. For example, the Lok Janshakti Party found national opportunities relatively easily but got a place in the Bihar Cabinet only recently.

In Tamil Nadu, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) responded to federal opportunities, while being excluded from government in its home State. Outside of the State government, the PMK finds it difficult to establish distinctive positions, apart from its identity politics. On the other hand, it tried to leverage national opportunities for its benefit at the State level. Projects were funded in favoured constituencies and MPs lobbied in Delhi for benefits at the State level. Anbumani Ramadoss used his ministerial experience to enhance his image at the State level, making it the centrepiece of his 2016 Assembly election campaign. A place in Parliament confers prestige on small parties and a national stage on which to perform. Patronage resources can be extracted from the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme and coalition allies. The PMK enters the NDA in 2019 with a promise from the Centre of a new rail connection between Morappur and Dharmapuri.

Maurice Duverger famously argued that small parties, without geographically concentrated support, cannot win in a plurality voting system such as India’s. Voters will turn away from small parties that lose. For their part, small parties are likely to die out or seek mergers with larger parties. The working of India’s federal political system gives small parties opportunities to join alliances. Small parties might ‘lose’ by failing to join governments in their home State, but they can claim to ‘win’ when they join a national coalition government. Thus, they remain outsiders in their own State, but can be a coalition partner at the Centre. With the national outcome uncertain in May 2019, small parties have been able to bargain for seats in Lok Sabha with renewed vigour. Soon, we shall see if they hold the balance of power.

Andrew Wyatt teaches politics at the University of Bristol, and C. Manikandan is an independent scholar

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