Regional Parties

Voice of the regions

Print edition : May 02, 2014

A coal mine in Ramgarh, Jharkhand. Photo: Manob chowdhury

A thermal power station, in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu. Photo: N. RAJESH

The emergence of regional parties is an outcome of the capitalist development path that benefited a few States to the detriment of some other parts of the country.

Contrary to the general impression, the regional parties will play a decisive role in the parliamentary elections of 2014. With the emergence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the national electoral firmament in the late 1980s, it was seriously apprehended that bipolar politics would dominate the election discourse. While the BJP has dramatically strengthened itself in the past two decades, the Congress has declined substantially and has got practically obliterated from many States. To keep the bipolarity alive between the Congress and the BJP, both parties have exhorted the electorate to ignore the regional players so that the “nation-building” effort remains unhindered. They claim that centrifugal forces in the form of regional parties are not good for the nation. Indeed, the manifestos of both parties do not provide any space to the problem of regional development. This view completely ignores the reality that most regional parties have strong historical roots and that they are a corollary of the plurality of our nation.

Early challenges to Congress

The trigger for the formation of the Communist Party and the Congress Socialist Party, with a radical political foundation long before Independence, as an alternative to the Indian National Congress, was the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and the Great Depression of 1929. These parties were no match for the Congress, then about four decades old, thanks to its wide organisational spread, but its political monopoly was definitely challenged for the first time by these two radical parties. While all these parties converged on the agenda of independence, their ideological constructs differed on the question of nation building in the post-Independence period. These got substantiated through the three broad charters of the pre-Independence period—essentially, the capitalist Bombay Plan, the People’s Plan of M.N. Roy and the plan of the “Planning Committee” of 1938 presided over by Jawaharlal Nehru.

The framers of these plans had obviously different ideological persuasions. However, parts of all the three plans got subsumed in the post-Independence development strategy, which gave space to both the “state” and the “market”. Nevertheless, the “import substitution” model of industrialisation, with the “state” enjoying the “commanding heights”, formed the bedrock of the policy. As a consequence, from a practically non-existing foundation, the industrial base expanded massively in India in spite of the moderate growth rate of the economy, contemptuously referred to as the “Hindu Rate”. After liberalisation, the growth rate leapfrogged to double digits, but a tragic consequence of this capitalist growth was the increasing duality of the economy, between the developed and the underdeveloped States. The “freight equalisation” policy in the coal, steel and cement sectors further contributed to the duality, to the detriment of the eastern region States.

Even though the duality in the economy was relatively less immediately after Independence, its resonance had direct political fallouts. The success of the Telangana movement in the early 1950s, spearheaded by the Communists, brought the peasant question on to the centre stage. The Communists then emerged as a clear alternative in the national firmament, but the response of the state was draconian. Not only was the Communist Party initially banned, but the first democratically elected communist government under E.M.S. Namboodiripad in Kerala was dismissed by Nehru. Almost a decade later, Indira Gandhi dismissed the United Front government in West Bengal. These two events were landmarks in Indian history, not only for forestalling communist ascendancy but for taming the pluralistic aspirations of the people of India.

Opposition from the Right

There were also parties like the Swatantra Party, which, with rightist views, believed that Nehru’s policy severely fettered the growth of the capitalist transformation of India. These parties believed that without the abrogation of the ”license-permit raj”, the “Hindu Rate” of growth would continue. Essentially, they derived their ideological sustenance from the “Bombay Plan”, worked out by the Bombay group of industrialists, in the pre-Independence period. Hailing as they did from the traditional elite section, they swapped their positions in the Congress and the Congress Socialist Party effortlessly. Ironically, the underlying narrative of the political agendas of all these leaders (Jayaprakash Narayan, Minoo Masani, C. Rajagopalachari or J.B. Kripalani) was marked by the concepts of the “end of ideology”, “party-less democracy” and “anti-communism” . Indeed, key leaders of the socialist movement such as Jayaprakash Narayan and Minoo Masani were either private secretaries or close counsel of G.D. Birla. This mindset continued to influence generations, leading to the emergence of a leader like Narendra Modi. While many of these old parties have disappeared, the BJP, a party in their mould, has reinvented itself decisively, stealing the Congress’ political and economic thunder. The “Communist spectre” has diminished in India, restricted now to only a few States—Kerala, Tripura, and West Bengal.

Another economic fallout of the duality was the emergence of regional parties such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP), the Akali Dal and the Janata Dal (Secular). These parties are all mainly located in the relatively developed States, which have benefited from the growth process. These States, which had “ryotwari” and “mahalwari” land tenurial settlements where intermediaries between the state and tenants were absent, have a history of a vibrant, incentive-based structure of production and productivity. Moreover, the local artisans, traders and entrepreneurs in these States, where British colonialism came late, had survived the imperialist onslaught. Further, most of these parties were the product of the social and sub-national movement that led to regional capitalism. In a way, Tamil Nadu, which was part of the Madras Presidency, pioneered this phenomenon. K. Kamraj, who succeeded C. Rajgopalachari as the Chief Minister of Madras Presidency, presided over the trajectory of Tamil capitalism.

His close associate, T.T. Krishnamachari, an organic entrepreneur and intellectual, introduced “freight equalisation” as Union Minister of Industry in the early 1950s. This “freight equalisation”, along with the strategy of import substitution, gave the industrialisation process in the southern, western and northern States a head start. The States Reorganisation Act of 1956 helped in carving out consolidated States from the mammoth Presidencies of Bombay and Madras. Later, Andhra Pradesh, which was carved out from the Madras Presidency, also followed a trajectory that was similar to Tamil Nadu’s. In Andhra Pradesh, agricultural surplus got invested in tobacco, film and later knowledge-based capitalism. In Maharashtra, the sugar industry created a massive indigenous base. In Karnataka, the Mysore king himself imposed the capitalist and industrial foundation in the State. Punjab lived down the disadvantages of Partition and of being a land-locked State. By promoting agriculture and small industrial capitalism, it created a new annal of accumulation. In the process, there developed a huge domestic constituency of entrepreneurs clamouring for reform in the post-1980s and for integration into the national and international capitalist grid. The flowering of regional capitalism was done under the canopy of the Congress earlier. However, the Industrial Policy of 1956 and the restrictive policy of licensing fettered regional capitalism and industrial transformation. Wherever the Congress could breach this divide and incorporate these sections in its fold, it has averted total eclipse, as in Karnataka and Maharashtra. In Tamil Nadu and, later, Andhra Pradesh, apart from the history of social movement, the regional capitalist agenda was the immediate provocation for provincial party formations.

In Andhra Pradesh, the wholly uncalled for insult to T. Anjaiah, the then Chief Minister, by Rajiv Gandhi at the Hyderabad airport led to unprecedented Telugu sub-nationalism and the formation of the Telugu Desam Party. This got crystallised through the dynamic Kamma industrialists and entrepreneurs led by L.V. Prasad and Ramoji Rao of Eenadu. The regional capitalist constituency is so powerful in Andhra Pradesh that now that Telangana has been carved out from its parent State, a “special category status” has been granted to Seemandhra by the Congress government in collaboration with the BJP so that capital accumulation can continue unhindered. In contrast, the same Congress government turned a deaf ear to the Bihar government’s long-standing demand for “special category status”. The leaders of regional parties are generally from the “vernacular elites such as C.N. Annadurai, M. Karunanidhi, N.T. Rama Rao, N. Chandrababu Naidu and K. Chandrasekhar Rao, who are rooted in the soil. They have outwitted the traditional elites in their own game. The future dispensation in the Centre should not, therefore, believe they can be pushed over. In the absence of a clear majority at the Centre, these parties could be natural allies for any of the national political formations, either the Congress or the BJP, provided their interest in unfettered accumulation gets protected.

Victims of duality

In contrast, States like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand are the main victims of the duality of the economic policy, and parties such as the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) are engaged with the fundamentals of State-building, equity- and identity-related issues. The Hindi heartland States were further disadvantaged as these areas developed some sort of resistance to modernisation and westernisation after the failure of the First War of Independence (Sepoy Mutiny) in 1857. In the process, neither any social movement nor any form of sub-nationalism emerged, and caste remained a dominant factor. Highly iniquitous land distribution and feudalism had a dominant say in these areas and the democratisation process was until recently non-functional. Land reform could not be initiated—in fact, there was a determined political force to oppose it. These issues had been taken care of much earlier in the developed States. Over and above, in the absence of a “stock exchange”, the equity culture could not be inculcated in the Hindi heartland.

In contrast, the stock-related discourse and the TRP rating of the CNBC television channel is highest in Gujarat. Further, in the absence of a regional bourgeoisie, market- and capitalism-related engagements were still unknown here. The agro-capitalists produced by the “green revolution” have a powerful base in the regional parties in these States, where electoral democratisation has been ushered in recently. Chowdhury Charan Singh was the organic intellectual of this class. Later, Karpoori Thakur, Devi Lal, Maulayam Singh Yadav and Nitish Kumar emerged as towering leaders of the Hindi heartland and spearheaded the second phase of the green revolution. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) represent the “cockney” utterance of India, who are either on the fringe of the market or outside, and constitute a very important political complexion of the Hindi heartland. They did give voice to the subaltern but later on were co-opted by vested interests.

In contrast with the Congress, the BJP has succeeded in the Hindi heartland because it has allowed its regional formations in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan to grow unhindered. In the case of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and the Trinamool Congress in Odisha and West Bengal, a dynamic, “bhadralok”' elite is at the helm of provincial politics. If “freight equalisation” had not been introduced immediately after Independence, elite formation in these two States would have been very different. In spite of the presence of powerful leaders such as B.C. Roy and Biju Patnaik, regional capitalism could not make powerful breakthroughs in these two States. If Odiya and Bengali elites are able to protect their electoral interest, it is primarily because of their deep sub-national roots.

Regional parties constitute a decisive national reality now. It will not be surprising if they together corner the highest number of parliamentary seats. In the absence of a clear majority for either of the two competing political parties, the Congress and the BJP, the resilience of coalition politics will again be underlined. Until recently, the Congress abhorred stitching tie-ups with regional parties, but in the end it found no takers. Lalu Prasad gave space to the Congress because, after his conviction, he is decidedly on the back foot. The BJP, on the other hand, appears more pragmatic in building a coalition. It does not have any moral or ideological pretence over the question of tie-ups. In the last couple of months, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has emerged as a decisive player in Delhi. It has all the appropriate foundations to emerge as a national party. But one will have to wait. Thus, the regional parties will not only play an important role in this parliamentary election, they will also be an important entity in all future political discourses of the country.

Dr Shaibal Gupta is Member Secretary, Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI), Patna.