Indian regional parties take steps towards election alliance

Reuters News
Posted: Feb 05, 2014 9:50 AM

By Shyamantha Asokan and Nigam Prusty

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - A clutch of Indian regional parties met on Wednesday to discuss plans to stymie the government's goals for parliament's final session, fueling expectations that they will forge an alliance before national elections due by May.

Officials from 11 parties plotted a possible strategy for the session in which the ruling Congress party hopes to push through a raft of anti-corruption bills to woo voters.

"We have decided to raise some common issues in parliament," Sitaram Yechury, a leader of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) told Reuters. "We can't allow the Congress party to further its election agenda."

The group does not oppose the proposed anti-corruption bills but will not approve them hastily simply to boost Congress' image, Yechury said.

Congress has led coalition governments for the past decade but faces an uphill struggle to win re-election this year due to a string of corruption scandals and sagging economic growth.

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, the national opposition party, is forecast to win the largest chunk of seats in the 543-seat assembly but to fall short of a majority, according to two opinion polls last month.

India's regional parties and their often charismatic leaders have become more powerful national players in recent years. Parties other than Congress and the BJP are set to bag around half of the seats in the elections, according to a poll conducted by pollsters CVoter for the India Today media group.

In recent days, some prominent state-level leaders have sealed alliances or spoken about a so-called "third front". Jayaram Jayalalithaa, chief minister of southern Tamil Nadu state, whose party attended Wednesday's meeting, has in recent days formed an alliance with a leftist party.

Nitish Kumar, chief minister of Bihar, whose party also attended the meeting, last week expressed enthusiasm for a third front in an interview with the Economic Times newspaper.

Leaders at the meeting also hinted at such a tie-up.

"We think the Congress and the BJP are not in a position to give an alternative government to the country," Yechury said.

"Our activities are now only confined to Parliament. What we will do next will be announced soon."

A government made up of several regional groups with diverse agendas could prove unwieldy, a potential problem for Asia's third-largest economy, whose growth has tumbled to a decade low due to the slow pace of reform under Congress' watch.

Any third front would need to work hard to counter the popularity of Narendra Modi, the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, analysts say.

Modi, who has presided over rapid economic growth during more than 12 years as chief minister of Gujarat state, has been wooing voters by pointing to his track record as a leader who cuts red tape and attracts investment.

A third of voters want Modi to be prime minister, according to a poll last month conducted by pollsters CSDS for the CNN-IBN television network.

(Additional reporting by Sujoy Dhar in KOLKATA; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Raissa Kasolowsky)