Politics of compromise

Print edition : December 28, 2012

GHULAM NABI AZAD with DMK chief M. Karunanidhi and party MP Kanimozhi in Chennai ahead of the vote on FDI.-PTI

Regional parties promised a greater say for regional aspirations in policymaking. That hope peters out as their leaders allow self-interest to dictate their moves.

RIGHT FROM THE MID-1960s, WHEN REGIONAL PARTIES emerged as a significant political presence in many States, these parties and their leaderships have overwhelmingly displayed two characteristics. They have, on the one hand, built on and represented deep-rooted social and regional aspirations that had not found adequate space in mainstream polity. On the other, the leaderships of most of these parties have consistently shown rank opportunism. Hence, they and their parties, while being known to broadly represent the interests of the underprivileged sections of society, are seen as suffering from a colossal deficiency in the principles quotient.

Both these characteristics have been quite prominent since the early 1990s when regional parties, strengthened by the assertive politics of Dalits and Other Backward Classes, started increasingly challenging the monopoly of the Congress on political power. It was felt that if the trend continued, then stronger regional players would turn out to be pivotal agencies in the evolution of a multifaceted and diverse democracy. The parties continue to play this role, but these have been periodically overshadowed by the principles quotient deficiency of their leaderships. By any yardstick, a number of regional parties have fallen to their worst in this regard in the last couple of months.

The majority of the regional parties which are supporting the Union government, such as the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), have displayed this deficiency. Over the last couple of months, these parties have repeatedly engaged in a kind of cynical bargaining for Central assistance to the States they represent and sought leniency in cases relating to corruption and disproportionate accumulation of wealth. Issues such as poor governance, price rise and corruption have been largely left unaddressed, causing widespread public disillusionment in their own social and political constituencies. Many observers feel that this could reverse the contribution these parties have made to the countrys democratic process and entrench new forms of the old Congress system. Regional parties in the principal opposition group, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), such as the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Shiv Sena, have also remained conspicuous by their silence in matters concerning the common people and have chosen to remain under the political cover provided by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the national arena.

RJD leader Lalu Prasad after voting in support of the government on December 5.-RAJEEV BHATT

A case in point would be the responses of these parties in the recent political imbroglio over foreign direct investment (FDI) in the retail sector. Most of the parties now supporting the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had earlier taken principled positions against it as they felt FDI in the retail sector would directly impact common people, especially traders and farmers, in the States where they are powerful. Both the S.P. and the BSP repeatedly said in the past one year that they would oppose the move to introduce FDI in multi-brand retail. However, when the proposal was tabled in Parliament, their responses changed. The S.P. came to the governments rescue after the Left withdrew support to it. After much suspense, it decided to vote against FDI in retail in the Rajya Sabha even while letting it pass in the Lok Sabha.

The BSP, which suffered a huge defeat in the last Assembly elections, seemed to be ready for some bargaining. Its chief, Mayawati, stated that her party would not support communal forces like the BJP on any issue. Two issues are clear. First, the BSP will not align with the communal forces in opposing FDI. Second, we welcome the big plus of the FDI policy, allowing the States to decide whether or not to permit FDI entry, she told a press conference. Common platforms of various political parties to debate economic policy issues have always been scuttled in the last decade in the name of defending secular politics. So the BSPs stand was hardly a surprise.

Trinamool Congress members at a dharna in Parliament House on November 29.-RAJEEV BHATT

Corruption, a deciding factor

The issue of corruption is the deciding factor in these machinations. Leaders of both the S.P. and the BSP have grave charges of corruption levelled against them. Political analysts point out that while the BSP appears worried about the issue of reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in promotions in government jobs. So there may just be the possibility of a political barter: support for the Centre at this juncture could mean concessions on that front later.

For a politically weak BSP, supporting the Congress could guarantee the much-needed immunity. For the S.P., too, it could be chance to make important gains.

As for the DMK, one of its most important leaders, A. Raja, is one of the main accused in the 2G telecom spectrum case. The party has been with all governments at the Centre since 1996 (barring brief vacations in 1998-99 and early 2004). It has been part of the United Front governments of 1996-98, the NDA government of 1999-2004 and of both the UPA governments, I and II. For the past one and a half decades, it is known to have made political bargains with its national partners. One may recall the infamous Radia tapes, which showed how different power centres within the DMK were lobbying for key positions in the second UPA government.

After having vociferously opposed FDI in retail, the party has been tight-lipped about its support to the Union government in Parliament on this issue. It has, however, maintained that it will take a stand consistent with the interests of farmers in Tamil Nadu. But its conspicuous silence ahead of the debate indicated that it would vote with the government.

BSP CHIEF MAYAWATI during the debate on the motion opposing FDI in retail in the Rajya Sabha on December 6.-PTI

Sudhir Panwar, who represents a farmers collective, the Kisan Jagriti Manch, in western Uttar Pradesh, summed up the present dilemma of regional parties: The centripetal forces or the so-called national parties have managed to cut the FDI debate into two absolute positions leaving no room for a democratic discussion. The regional parties comply because they want to enjoy both pre-election and post-election benefits hedged out by the Centre. It is for these reasons that an economic issue has been turned into a political issue. Otherwise, how could a matter on FDI depend on conditions as irrelevant as a secular or a communal platform in the present context? The regional parties have united in bargaining with the Congress and are preventing discussions on pertinent issues on public platforms. We have to understand that what we see as weaknesses of the Congress are also their strengths when it comes to political interplay with regional players. FDI is a typical case in point in such a political context. Coalition governments and greater regionalisation of politics had been envisioned as developments that would lead to effective articulation of regional interests and strike at the system of patronage practised at the Centre. However, in the last two decades regional powers have used their presence in coalition governments at the Centre to extend their own brands of patronage in their respective States. The S.P., the BSP, the DMK, the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the SAD, the Shiv Sena and the Telugu Desam Party have all shown this tendency, with single families calling the shots.

The biggest disillusionment has been the emergence of what is understood as crony capitalism. The regional players have been its biggest practitioners. The S.P. and the BSP have allegedly hedged out lucrative projects to their favourite corporate groups. It is common knowledge that the Sahara group landed the largest number of contracts under the last S.P. government, and so did the Jaypee group during the last BSP regime. In many cases, such as in the case of the DMK and the SAD, the families that run the party have entered big businesses. Illegal use of money and muscle power during elections has become a practice in the States where regional political parties have been dominant. DMK politics has successfully manifested this practice through what political analysts have termed the Thirumangalam model. From industries to cable TV networks, from news channels to educational institutions, from transport companies to lucrative contracts, all have gone to people who enjoy political privileges in these States. These parties have successfully managed to create a potent mixture where big business and sectarian politics not just coexist but also complement each other.

BSP MPS WALK OUT of the Lok Sabha on December 5 to abstain from voting on the motion.-SUBHAV SHUKLA/PTI

The absence of viable alternatives allows these parties to remain forces to reckon with. The rise to power of the Trinamool Congress is a case in point. It projected itself as a pro-people party, and as a former ally of the UPA government, it showed token resistance to its policies from time to time. The party has faced criticism for its autocratic functioning. Any form of dissent in West Bengal against Mamata Banerjees government in the recent past has been brutally crushed. The party has also been severely criticised for displaying impulsive political action rather than coming out with a political strategy. An example is the way it went about bringing a no-confidence motion against the Union government on the issue of FDI. Without consulting other parties, it unilaterally moved the motion, failing to register a minimum support of 50 members. It thus virtually handed a reprieve to the government as constitutional provisions do not allow another no-confidence motion for six months after one has failed.

SAMAJWADI PARTY CHIEF Mulayam Singh Yadav walks out of the Lok Sabha along with party MPs to abstain from voting.-UBHAV SHUKLA/PTI

Clearly, the tactics of these regional groupings are often self-defeating. Unless these parties develop into a credible and viable political alternatives, with defined goals both in terms of immediate concerns and medium-term goals, they will fail their own core support bases. At a larger level, these regional parties, which were supposed to articulate local interests, are continuously showing themselves as organisations dictated and run by regional elites, alienated from the concerns of the poor.

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