Published : Apr 23, 2004 00:00 IST

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and other NDA leaders at a rally held to mark the alliance's completion of five years in office, in New Delhi in 2003. - SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and other NDA leaders at a rally held to mark the alliance's completion of five years in office, in New Delhi in 2003. - SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Indian politics has undergone fundamental changes since the 1980s, with regional parties coming to determine the fate of national governments. Has the growing political weight of these parties contributed meaningfully to the quality of the political system? An analysis.

THE rising importance of regional parties constitutes one of the most significant changes in India's recent politics. After a period of relative stability spanning three decades, Indian politics has undergone fundamental changes from the late 1980s, shifting the level of politics from the Centre to the States. From 1989 to 1999, the Congress' majority fell to an all-time low - well short of the vote share needed for a seat majority. India then moved from a national political system dominated by the centrist Congress to a coalition government led by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party in association with numerous regional and State parties. The BJP, which emerged as the single largest party in Parliament in 1996, has, however, not been able to fill the vacuum created by the decline of the Congress. This period witnessed the emergence of regional parties that came to determine the fate of national governments, the fracturing of the electorate and the arrival of coalitions, which these parties have deftly used for expanding their presence in both national and State politics.

The clout of regional parties has increased markedly in the last few years, which is evident most significantly from the process of government formation at the Centre. The installation of the BJP in power in New Delhi could not have happened without the support of regional parties in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Powerful regional parties, which include the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Trinamul Congress, the Akali Dal, the Samata Party and the Biju Janata Dal, supported the NDA. In 1996, almost all these regional parties dominated the United Front (U.F.) coalition of `democratic and secular forces' playing a key role in the selection of H.D. Deva Gowda as Prime Minister. Two years later, N. Chandrababu Naidu, Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh and president of the TDP, played a critical role in ensuring that Atal Bihari Vajpayee became Prime Minister. No one was left in doubt of the enormity of the transition from one-party dominance to regionally-driven coalition politics.

In the event of a hung Parliament in 2004, regional parties may yet again play a decisive role in government formation as both kingmakers and partners in power. Even though the BJP has comprehensively dominated the NDA, its regional allies will be able to take advantage of the inability of the BJP or the Congress to form a government on its own strength. This is in sharp contrast with the past when regional and State parties held office in the States at the pleasure of strong Central governments.

The emergence of regional/State parties has been the most striking feature of Indian politics, regionalising the polity substantially. Recent election verdicts confirmed the new political situation in which the electoral process produced not a national verdict, but an aggregation of regional and local verdicts. Neither of the major parties - the BJP and the Congress - emerged from the 1996, 1998, 1999 elections with close to a majority in the Lok Sabha and neither are they likely to win a majority in the foreseeable future. These election verdicts, reflecting the obvious necessity of coalition governments embracing numerous political parties, emphasise the decisive importance of regional and State parties.

How did this happen? At the institutional level, India's parliamentary federal structure provides the basic framework within which national and State parties can coexist. The distribution of powers between the Centre and States offers incentives to set up State parties. However, as long as India was a centralised federation, the Congress dominated it. Once the federation began to loosen up, a multiplicity of parties emerged in the States. The first-past-the-post or simple majority system accentuates this trend and encourages the growth of regional parties at the expense of national parties. The rise of regional parties was partly a natural development and partly a reaction to over-centralisation by crucial national leaders and Congress governments in the 1970s and 1980s. Over-centralisation produced a counterweight - the federalisation of the polity and formation of new regional and State-based parties.

At the centre of transformation is the crumbling of the Congress system, which for four decades occupied a position of dominance in the politics of the nation and most of the States. Realignments caused by the Ayodhya and Mandal issues shrunk the party's social base and reduced its vote share to an all-time low of 28 per cent in 1996. The 1989 elections was a turning point, which saw the rise of the BJP, and regional or State parties. Although the regionalisation process dates from 1967, it is since 1989, when the era of coalition governance began, that the process has triggered the emergence of new State parties with mergers and alliances, together with the break-up of some nominally national parties and factions and the assimilation of others. Thus, caste and class clusters that were once part of the Congress coalition have found a voice through other parties. The rapid mobilisation of the socially underprivileged groups has resulted in a realignment of political parties along State, sub-State and caste lines, creating conflict among them and against the upper castes.

At a broader level, these momentous changes are partly an outcome of specific social and political circumstances in different States, propelling the growth of contending regional formations with their own social agendas. The process of change is closely linked to the differential dynamics of the decline of the Congress and the emergence of specific regional and vernacular discourses that have eroded centralised political authority. This decentering of politics has shifted the locale from New Delhi to the States with their distinct cultures, discourses and caste-class and caste-community mobilisations and alliances.

The single most important source of change is the entry of the propertied intermediate and middle castes, the chief beneficiaries of commercialisation of agriculture in the last few decades. Regional parties have also become powerful advocates of regional business interests. Over the years, the new social bloc courted alternative non-Congress political formations to enhance its influence in the States and at the Centre, knowing full well that it stands to gain the most from the decline of the Congress.

Regional pressures have shifted the centre of gravity to the more prosperous States of southern and western India with capital accumulating and gravitating there to the new economy. The relatively higher levels of development in these States demonstrated the benefits of regionalisation, which has clearly helped in building broad-based political affinities that can make claims on the Central government to augment development opportunities and public investment. One outcome of the struggle for economic and political power is an increase in the representation of the vernacular elite in government - the elite who had established themselves at the local and regional levels. It is illustrated by the strategic shift from protests against Brahmin domination to the appropriation and consolidation of political power through an acquisition of economic clout, control over the educational system and jobs in the government sector. The social constellations giving rise to these shifts vary from State to State, but the unmistakable upshot of regionalisation has been the rise to power of intermediate classes and castes in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra. This process is under way in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Three principal changes are in progress: the Centre is not pre-eminent in the way it was during the Congress rule; there has been a growth in the power of State governments and an increased role for States in national policy-making; the regional parties representing the socio-economic and political power of the intermediate castes and classes have readily extended support to the BJP government at the Centre and in the States as well. The growth and collaboration of the regional parties with the BJP proved to be a great boon for its expansion. The two major exceptions are the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar and the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) in Uttar Pradesh, which have so far refused to support the BJP.

Overall, the direct support of regional parties has enabled the formation of the BJP-led government in New Delhi, but also, more crucially, facilitated the process of acceptability of the BJP/Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) in the political mainstream. The National Front coalition of 1989 began the process of ending the BJP's untouchable status, culminating in the normalisation of the BJP/RSS by 1999. Traditionally, political untouchability had prevented the BJP and the former Jan Sangh from attracting political support.

Learning from the Janata Party experience of 1977-79, the National Front did not try to unify very different parties in a single formation. Instead, it put together a distinct grouping of Left, socialist, regional and caste parties. Of immense significance was the concept of "seat adjustments", first used in 1977 by the Opposition against the Congress, which proved to be a great incentive for all types of political adjustments. In this form of alliance, parties do not compete in each other's strongholds and thus do not poach on each other's turf; that is, they are spatially compatible even when they are ideologically and politically incompatible. Nevertheless, despite being a bold experiment in "adjustment", the marriage of convenience of the National Front with the BJP and the Left in 1989 was soon annulled on grounds of incompatibility with the BJP over secularism.

It would be useful at this stage to move to the 1996 elections and consider the party configuration that emerged after the 1996 and 1998 elections. The Congress lost its dominant position and, since 1996, has won only a quarter of votes and a little more than a 100 seats in Parliament. Yet, while the Congress was clinging to the idea that one party can speak for all of India; its premier rival, the BJP, had factored the rise of regionalism into its own scheme of things. Even at the rhetorical level, the Congress refused to countenance the idea of coalition governance, equating it with instability. The party revealed itself to be out of tune with the aspirations of the new segments entering the political process.

It is important to remember that the problem was not just that the Congress had illusions of restoring the party's pre-eminence but that it was the principal opponent of several State parties in their regional strongholds. Indeed, most regional and State-based parties have risen to prominence by building anti-Congress coalitions.

To the contrary, the electoral trajectories of the BJP and the regional parties are not fundamentally in conflict simply because their respective bases lie in different sets of States. This fact alone explains the coalitions that have emerged between the BJP and regional parties since 1998, in addition to the regional parties' desire for a share in power in the national governing coalition.

After its failure to secure a majority to preserve its 13-day government in May 1996, the BJP was quick to draw the lessons and moved swiftly to forge alliances on an unprecedented scale for a major national party. For a short period from 1996 to 1998, the influential secular/communal divide shaped coalition-building and the choice of alliance partners. However, the unity of secular forces proved short-lived and the BJP somehow became an acceptable partner. This unity was confined to the United Front government's term in office. It proved inadequate when pitted against the attractions of anti-Congressism. The Congress/anti-Congress divide, a legacy of four decades of Congress dominance, outlasted the postulate of secular unity in determining alliances. More crucially, anti-Congressism helped the BJP to marshal support from regional and State parties, which are bitterly opposed to the Congress. Even Left parties, such as the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Forward Bloc, and parties such as the S.P. adamantly opposed the idea of a Congress-led government.

THE 1998 election was an even more important turning point for coalition politics as the BJP was able to strike explicit or tacit alliances with a range of regional/State parties, which were earlier with the United Front. In 1999, the BJP was still more explicit in embracing coalition politics, and alliances with regional parties. This shift in strategy consisting of a wide range of alliances helped it to increase its electoral support in States where it had no strong presence.

Thanks to the support of the very regional parties that were earlier an essential part of the U.F. coalition to keep the BJP out of power in 1996, the BJP performed better in the 1999 elections and emerged as the nucleus of party politics. These regional allies helped the BJP win the elections, not only by providing a vast number of seats to make up the majority in Parliament, but also by delivering crucial votes to BJP candidates in those parliamentary constituencies where the regional allies did not contest in favour of the national partner. Most important, this improved the BJP's image and social base, which continues to be overwhelmingly upper and middle class, and upper caste. Its alliance partners filled the geographical and social gaps in the party's support among the middle and lower strata of the social and economic hierarchy.

These elections herald the growth of an astonishing pattern of collaboration driven by a complicated interaction between regionalisation, social fragmentation and communalisation. The advent of three new political projects marked the reconfiguration of the structure of politics: Hindutva, Mandalisation and neo-liberalism. These three projects sought to reinvent the national political community, privileging religious community or caste or class as the anchor of their respective political designs. But, paradoxically, the three distinct efforts to homogenise politics ended up creating a polity differentiated at the State or regional level.

The mainsprings of this process has been the Mandal agenda of reservations for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), the main plank of the V.P. Singh government's effort to counter the Hindutva agenda. These events had given rise to the hope that the OBC-supported regional parties would remain opposed to Hindutva in the light of the historical opposition of backward castes, middle and rich peasantary and socialists to Brahmin domination. Instead, the vigorous articulation of State interests by regional parties has provided the rationalisation for coalition-building between ideologically incompatible partners.

This process of reconfiguration of the political space has seen the vote and seat share of the regional parties or alliances go up, thereby making the system more pluralistic and competitive. This is reflected in the bigger electoral presence of State parties in national politics in the past four elections. Regional/State parties increased their share of Lok Sabha seats from 54 in 1991 to 167 in 1999, and their vote share from 24 in 1996 to 30 per cent in 1999. This increase has taken place at the expense of national parties, especially the BJP and the Congress, which have stagnated around 300 seats between them. Today, regional/State parties are contenders for power in all States except Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. If we take the seven largest States, which account for 310 seats, it is evident that national parties have to play second fiddle to regional parties. This trend is evident in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and West Bengal.

THE growing political weight of regional parties raises a number of issues. The first is the nature of regionalisation itself. Not all regional parties are even regionalist, in the sense of representing demands for cultural autonomy or grievances against the central state. Parties that are explicitly regional in character often emphasise their role as guardians of the interests and cultural identity of the regions. There are many parties, which are State-based and less inclined to stress the distinctiveness of their regions. This is partly because regionalist demands have less appeal in those parts of India where these parties command influence and partly because some of them stress caste and class differences more than regional identities. Regional appeals would undercut the claims of these parties to be national and consequently reduce their influence in national politics. Nevertheless, inter-State disputes and ethnic politics are aggravated by regionalism. The recent conflict over recruitment of semi-skilled workers in the railways indicates the social fragmentation that result from the rise of regional politics.

The second question that must be addressed is this: what are the implications of fragmentation and proliferation of parties for a higher order aggregation, given the tendency of parties and factions to represent narrower and narrower segments of society, expressed mainly in terms of regional and caste blocs? The fact is that many regional parties are personality-driven offshoots of parties that were once part of national parties and they tend to represent a particular set of social groups, usually built around caste loyalties. These leaders are mainly interested in obtaining the spoils of office that come from partnership with the ruling BJP.

One consequence has been the short shrift given to policy issues in electoral politics. This means a reduced capacity to construct broad-based social coalitions in support of public issues. Parties such as the S.P. and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which are not limited to specific States, have not been able to expand beyond the boundaries of Uttar Pradesh. These parties, which seek to represent a broad array of individual castes within broader umbrella social categories, such as Dalits or backward castes, find their social bases fragmenting to a significant degree. This is because caste politics has largely confined itself to gaining access to power rather than any substantial agenda of social transformation. This is why broad-based alliances of lower-caste groups have been relatively few and unstable and have had more success when they have mobilised on the basis or shared regional identity.

The third and most vital concern must be to assess whether the BJP's reliance on regional/State parties will serve to restrain the party's efforts to transform the Indian state into a Hindu nation-state, in which citizenship is reducible to one's faith. This involves two distinct questions: whether such parties will be prepared to restrain Hindutva, and whether they will be able to. In six years of BJP-led NDA rule, we have confronted huge challenges to accepted notions of citizenship, equality, identity, culture and nation, a massive communal political mobilisation, which has led to a change in the form and content of nationalism. The proponents of cultural nationalism want to transform India into a powerful nation, based not on ideas enshrined in the Constitution, but on an imagined past, evoking the greatness of Hindu India. The "India Shining" campaign in the midst of rising inequality is a classic example of elite manipulation of nationalism to obscure the injustices of class and wealth. The Gujarat carnage - following the horrific burning of the Sabarmati Express at the Godhra station killing 59 Hindus - aided and abetted both by the State and local BJP/RSS politicians, may have caused the BJP's coalition partners some discomfort, but certainly not enough to walk out of the alliance.

In other words, the hope that regional parties would act as a restraining influence on the BJP/RSS agenda has not been fulfilled. Other calculations clearly discourage the BJP's regional allies from defending the values of secularism. But looking ahead, the collaboration of regional parties with the BJP is bound to open up conflicts as the BJP aspires to a position of dominance at the expense of the smaller parties. The political logic of the NDA coalition that brought its allies together and the BJP to power is open to change at short notice.

Finally, is coalition formula the only way for national political parties to mobilise and expand support in a heterogeneous polity? The huge gains of the BJP from this strategy would seem to suggest that this approach is spot on. Can the Congress form the core of an alternative winning coalition? This time the Congress has worked energetically at forging coalitions. Its alliances in Maharashtra, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand appear to be strong coalitions, which should pay electoral dividends.

It is no doubt important to build alliances, but alliance building should not become a surrogate for social and economic issues. Policy actions of parties such as the Congress do not reflect popular concerns despite benefiting from lower caste and class support. To counter the BJP's pursuit of economic elitism, it is imperative to change the terrain of public discourse. The Congress needs to project a clear left-of-centre profile as a party committed to ameliorating serious material deprivation and achieving effective social equality. Only this leftward turn will consolidate its secular support and reverse the trend of communalisation, regionalisation and trivialisation of political discourse, which has been the legacy of five years of NDA rule.

Zoya Hasan is Professor of Political Science, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

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