22 March 2013

Dr Gareth Price

Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme


The decision of the second largest party in India's ruling coalition, the DMK, to withdraw from the government reflects both the impact of Sri Lankan politics on politics in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, and the growing proximity of India's general election.

Don't panic

While the ruling coalition now holds just 230 seats – 272 is required for a majority – its position is safe for now; 59 MPs from other parties will continue to support the government though they are not part of the ruling coalition. But the calculations made by the DMK are likely to have an effect on other parties in the government meaning that coalition management will become increasingly imperative if the government is to last a full term.

That said, few parties in government or opposition seem keen for an early election. Consequently for now at least a no-confidence motion is unlikely; unless a no-confidence vote is called, the first parliamentary vote that the government has to win is the next budget in February 2014. So the government may well be able to trundle along relatively happily for now.

The government's immediate problem may soon blow over. The trigger for the DMK's withdrawal was the government's failure to commit to condemning alleged atrocities against Sri Lankan Tamils at the forthcoming meeting of the UN Human Rights Council. The Sri Lankan government's treatment of Tamils at the end of the civil war has become an increasingly important issue within Tamil Nadu, which has a large population of Tamils. The issue has intensified since claims were recently made in a documentary that the son of the leader of the Tamil Tigers was killed in cold blood.

Formerly a fringe issue in the politics of Tamil Nadu, now each of the main parties from the state is demanding that India's government takes a tough line on Sri Lanka. To avoid being out-flanked, the DMK may have felt it had little choice but to take a tough stance on the issue. But, if the government does decide to vote against Sri Lanka, the DMK may revert to the government.

Pressure on India

India's decision will be important. The government tried but failed to amend the wording of the UN resolution and in the end voted with the US and against Sri Lanka; India is reluctant to 'interfere' in the sovereign affairs of other states and, wary of China's growing influence in Sri Lanka, would be reluctant to alienate it further. But Western countries, notably the US, encouraged India to vote with them against Sri Lanka. With India's regional policy coming under increasing criticism within India – even the Maldives appears to be cocking a snook against its allegedly hegemonic larger neighbour – India choose to side with the West. Whether or not this marks the start of a more aggressive foreign policy towards its smaller neighbours, remains to be seen. 

Playing politics

There could be other factors involved in the DMK's resignation from the Cabinet. If the DMK had not settled on this issue to demonstrate its divergence from Congress, the main party in the ruling coalition, it may have chosen another. The DMK's leader, M Karunanidhi is an astute politician. Formerly in alliance with the BJP when it was in government, the DMK withdrew months before the 2004 election, sensing the political wind was turning and formulated an alliance with Congress, remaining in government since.

While its leader may be astute, many of the corruption cases that have plagued the government over the past couple of years, notably the under-pricing of telecoms licences, have involved politicians from the DMK. The party is out of power in Tamil Nadu and it may face difficulty defining itself separately from Congress, especially since the DMK itself faces so many charges of corruption – one of the main causes of the government's unpopularity.

Both the DMK and Congress face difficult decisions. While the DMK may consider that it is time to jump ship, the main opposition party, the BJP, may well prefer to continue its association with the other main party from Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK, rather than throw its lot in with the DMK. And for Congress, the DMK remains a preferable partner to the AIADMK, led by Tamil Nadu's flamboyant current chief minister, Jayalalithaa.

Does any of this matter? In foreign policy terms it does; for Western countries keen for India to shift towards some form of 'values'-driven foreign policy and away from 'non-interference', the Sri Lanka vote is an important marker however vociferously the Indian government will likely claim it doesn’t.

In domestic politics it matters less. Elections in India are decided by the poor; if the government's flagship programmes – cash for work and cash transfers rather than rations – are working it will do well, however strongly the middle-class criticizes the government's corruption. Concrete evidence of how well these programmes are working, given India's 1.2bn people, is hard to garner: if Congress manages to perform well in the election, they probably are.

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