Vital pieces of a jigsaw

Print edition : May 02, 2014

Leaders of non-Congress, non-BJP parties in New Delhi in February. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Regional and identity-based parties will continue to retain fragmented spaces of political influence in the national polity after the 2014 elections.

THE 2014 general election and its historical importance had become part of the political discourse in India as far back as three years ago when four States and a Union Territory—Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Assam, Kerala and Puducherry—went to the polls in April-May 2011. An important text of this discourse was on the role and impact that regional and identity-based political parties would have in the general election. The series of Assembly elections in 2011 were followed by elections to the State Assemblies of Goa, Manipur, Punjab, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh in the first quarter of 2012 and Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh in the last quarter of the year. The overall political assessment that emerged out of these elections was that a number of regional and identity-based parties and a clutch of new individual regional party leaders would play a significant role in India’s next general election and in shaping the future of the Indian polity.

The most conspicuous element of the 2011 Assembly elections was the rise of two women regional party leaders, Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) leader Jayalalithaa. They led their parties to resounding victories in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu respectively. Mamata Banerjee’s emergence also signified a stunning blow to the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led mainstream Left in Indian politics, as the Left Front in West Bengal was thrown out after 34 years in power. In Tamil Nadu, an AIADMK-led alliance routed the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). A year later, in March 2012, the results of the elections in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur again signified the resurgence of regional parties and their political agendas. Along with this emerged young leaderships in organisations such as the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in Akhilesh Yadav and Sukhbir Singh Badal respectively.

While the primary and most obvious assessment of these results was that these forces and leaders would impact the national polity in diverse ways, a closer reading of the political and social trends ingrained in the electoral verdicts underscored many new and nuanced directions. These new directions threw up some contradictions in the overall trajectory that identity-based politics was taking in the country. Specifically, it related to most of the winning parties in these elections. Almost all of them had successfully sought to assimilate new social groups, communities, castes and sub-castes even as a larger identity thrust was at the core of their political existence. Thus, the S.P. in Uttar Pradesh, whose primary support base was the Yadav community which belongs to the Other Backward Classes (OBC), won the affiliation of upper-caste communities such as Brahmins and Thakurs. The SAD in Punjab attracted votes from not only its core Jat Sikh farmer community but also from the trader Hindu community and even marginalised sections such as Dalit Sikhs, who had earlier preferred smaller parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

Commenting on this in Frontline immediately after the elections in the first quarter of 2012, Kanchan Chandra, author and Professor of Politics at New York University, observed as follows: “The most striking aspect of the recently concluded Assembly elections in north India—in the States of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Punjab—is the gathering of initially fragmented political forces around two main parties or poles. So far, regional party systems in India have mostly run parallel with national-level trends towards fragmentation. The proportion of State-level governments with coalitions has been increasing since the 1990s. Their degree of fragmentation, while not as extreme as at the Centre, has been increasing too. But at least in these three States, this trend has been reversed. Paradoxically, this may provoke even more fragmentation at the national level, as invigorated regional parties now resurrect talk of a ‘third front’ government at the Centre” (“Whither identity politics?”, Frontline, April 6, 2012).

In diverse ways, the results of these elections and the discourse on their impact on the next general election underscored many of the points made in the seminal essay “Ten Theses on State Politics in India” written jointly by the psephologist and now Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) politician Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar ( Electoral Politics in Indian States, OUP, 2009). The essay stated that “if the people voted in the Assembly elections held in the 1970s and 1980s as if they were choosing the Prime Minister, they now vote in the parliamentary elections as if they are choosing their Chief Minister. In their eyes an individual constituency is too small and the country too big; it is at the level of the State that voters make their choice.”

The authors also pointed out that “the nature of political choice now varied from State to State”. “We have moved a long way from the old Congress versus opposition scenario that was replicated all over the country. Nor have we entered a multiparty system in all the States. The Lok Sabha may present the picture of an intensely fragmented multiparty system, but at the State level we can find all kinds of contests: bipolar, triangular, four-cornered or even more fragmented.” The phenomenon of fragmentation has had many manifestations at different points in time in the States and at the Centre. However, it has concretised and found near-universal acceptance among India’s political practitioners since 1996, when the P.V. Narasimha Rao-led Congress government was ousted and replaced by the United Front government. While forces of regional and identity politics had been making their presence felt in States in different regions of the country before that, 1996 made them a decisive player at the national level. Several factors have contributed to this, but by any yardstick, one crucial factor was the unleashing of OBC and Dalit assertive political groups since the announcement by the Vishwanath Pratap Singh government in 1989 on the implementation of the Mandal Commission report.

New regional forces

These political nuances and the inconsistencies they have thrown up at multiple levels have been reflected in the political processes leading up to the 2014 general election. Developments in States such as Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and, to an extent, Bihar and Odisha have accentuated fragmentation, with the creation of new regional forces and the assertion of old ones. The long-drawn-out Telangana agitation under the leadership of the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), leading to the formation of Telangana State and the eruption of a number of regional forces breaking out from the Congress in Seemandhra, are the most conspicuous of these developments. (See reports from different States.)

Even as all this was happening, there was also the argument, vociferously put forward by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and less animatedly by the Congress, that the coming together of fragmented social and political forces in States such as Uttar Pradesh and Punjab would be replicated at the national level in the interests of stability and a clear mandate. The BJP’s argument was that its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, had the potential to bring together the fragmented forces across India. The Congress argued that Modi’s culpability in the 2002 riots in Gujarat had firmly implanted him as a divisive personality in India’s political firmament, and hence it would be somebody like its leader, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, who would unite the fragmented social and political forces.

Many times in the long run-up to the general election, the BJP got so seemingly carried away by its “Modi as unifying factor” argument that a large number of its leaders, including Modi himself, went on record as saying that they would not try for alliances with regional forces and that the regional satraps would fall in line once the BJP won a large number of Lok Sabha seats. However, as the election process rolled on and as the polling dates got nearer, this position changed dramatically. The party went seeking out partners across regions and States, ranging from the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) in Bihar, the Telugu Desam Part (TDP) in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, a clutch of regional parties in Tamil Nadu and even a party like the Apna Dal in Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP’s claim is about winning more than half of the 80 seats in the State. The latter decision is apparently motivated by AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal’s decision to take on Modi in Varanasi. It did create some tremors, and the saffron party wanted a backup in the form of this regional outfit, which has a sizable following in the OBC Kurmi community in the region. The BJP was also for sometime in discussions with the TRS for an alliance.

The Congress, which has for long accepted the inevitability of seeking support from regional parties, is in alliance with parties across India upholding disparate regional and social identity politics and as diverse as the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) in Kerala, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar, the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) in Uttar Pradesh and the Jharkhand Mukthi Morcha (JMM) in Jharkhand.

Seen together with the phenomenon of powerful regional and identity-based parties such as the S.P. and the BSP in Uttar Pradesh, the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar, the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Odisha, and the DMK and the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu addressing these elections on their own, there is little doubt that they will continue to retain fragmented spaces of political influence in the national polity.

Issue-based politics

The Left parties, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India, which have considerable political sway in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura and have some pockets of influence in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan, denote a different facet of the influence of smaller parties although they cannot be termed representatives of regional or identity-based politics. Their categorisation will have to be as smaller parties taking issue-based positions that are fundamentally divergent from the policies pursued by the BJP and the Congress. The nascent AAP, which has deliberately sought to distance itself from all regional and identity-based projections, falls into this category.

While there is little doubt that these forces that control smaller and fragmented political spaces will continue to impact and play a role in the national polity, it also needs to be emphasised that a large number of the regional and identity-based parties in various parts of India have failed to live up to the expectations they have raised in their own core support bases. Blatant deviations from stated ideological positions, unimaginable political compromises, rampant corruption, an undemocratic style of functioning in the party organisation and the rise of the reprehensible personality cult are some of these factors pulling them down.

The S.P. claims itself to have been founded on the ideals of the socialist ideologue Ram Manohar Lohia. It has been decades since Lohia passed away, and the last such leader who imbibed socialism apart from Mulayam Singh Yadav himself was Janeshwar Mishra. The former Union Cabinet Minister was termed “Chhote Lohia” (Lohia Junior), but he too passed away in 2010. Now Mulayam Singh Yadav is the only ideologue, and there is an argument within the party and outside that the S.P. has been turned into a fiefdom, with his brothers, son, daughter-in-law and nephews all becoming members of Parliament or Legislative Assemblies.

The S.P.’s arch rival, the BSP, fares no better. The party is run with an iron fist and everyone knows there is only one boss, Mayawati. Under its founder Kanshi Ram, the BSP managed to woo the Dalits away from the Congress in the 1990s. Since then, they have remained loyal to the party. When Kanshi Ram fell ill, the Dalit ideologue was kept under the care of his favourite pupil, Mayawati, who ensured that no one else shared the legacy of the founder of the party. Since his death in 2006, the party did make big strides by securing an absolute majority in the 2007 elections to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly. But that advantage has systematically been lost not only in Uttar Pradesh but also in other States that matter to the party, such as Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Punjab. The Lucknow-based political commentator Manoj Bhadra takes stock of the situation as follows: “Compared with the BSP, the S.P. knows who its future leader is. But there is no clear hierarchy in the BSP.”

The neighbouring State of Bihar has similar problems. Between them, Lalu Prasad’s RJD and Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (U) have ruled the State for the past 24 years. Both parties are driven by their chiefs who were both a part of the socialist movement in the 1970s. Both have been riven with desertions by senior leaders because of the domination of the big two. Two examples are Shivanand Tiwari of the Janata Dal (U) and Ramkripal Yadav of the RJD.

The Dravidian parties of Tamil Nadu have historically and systematically recorded all the negative tendencies listed earlier, ranging from ideological deviation to corruption to obnoxious personality cult. Leaders from M. Karunanidhi to M.G. Ramachandran to Jayalalithaa to M.K. Stalin are all in the same league. In Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, leaders such as Naveen Patnaik, N. Chandrababu Naidu and Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy too fall into the same groove, albeit with differences in degree.

In the final analysis, these tendencies that dilute the original ideological, political and sociological parameters and thrusts are primarily dictated by the unabashed and morally deficient hunger for power of the leadership of these parties. While it has certainly the potential to lead to the undoing of these political forces, the question whether this will happen in the immediate, medium or long term has no definitive answer, especially against the background of the strong historical roots and factors that have led to their very rise and growth.

Sanjeev Ratna Singh is the former National Editor with NDTV and Times Now.