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Regional  political parties

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A.RAMMOHAN RAO

Regional political parties in the country are being predicted by many as India’s new electoral champions. After the historic majority to a single party, twice in 2014 and 2019, they were almost written off at national level. But now analysts speculate if regional parties come together and forge a coalition, they will be the key to government formation after the next general elections. The two competing national parties – the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are closely watching the movements of these regional party chiefs.

There are valid reasons for national dreams of regional parties. The 1980s and ‘90s witnessed the electoral boom of regional political parties who have been expanding both in number as well as in vote share. In fact, during last seventy years the number of national parties has come down. In the first Lok Sabha election in 1952, of the 55 parties that contested 37 were national parties and 18 were regional parties. The number of regional political outfits went up to 36 in the 2004 elections. In the 2014 elections, 31 regional parties sent their representatives to the Parliament.

In the 1984 general election, regional parties got 11.2 per cent of the votes; in 2009 their share went up to 28.4 per cent. In the past 20 years the share of regional parties in total votes has consistently increased. For the next elections in 2024, analysts estimate that regional parties will contest 250-280 seats out total 550 Lok Sabha seats. In these constituencies the two national parties may not be able to find potential candidates. There is already a certainty in mainstream political dialogue that national parties have ceded space to regional parties. This, according to political pundits, is because the national parties have not been able to address ‘regional aspirations’.

But the big question is whether the regional parties really lived up to those‘aspirations’? Much before the 1980s when the regional parties came to national prominence, they were dominant players in some states like Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Odisha and Tamil Nadu. The rise of regional parties was sharp in the late 1980s and 90s when the country saw acute polarisation of voters in terms of socio-economic groups. During this period voters from the disadvantaged sections took greater part in voting. Many regional parties like Shivsena, Telugudesam (TDP), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Shiromani Akali Dal, Janatadal (Secular), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Janatadal (United), Biju Janata Dal, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, used this to carve out their political identity. They promised development and social and economic equality in the face of economic liberalisation. Regional disparity was stark and livelihood crisis was severe at that point and regional parties emerged using developmental aspirations of millions of people.

More recently, they have flagged off the issue of federalism prominently in the face of an overarching Central government. Political analysts call it emergence of democratisation of politics where the focus shifted from national parties to local ones, allowing local issues to be reflected on national agenda. This also created some regional leaders for the country that had got used to a couple of top leaders from national parties leading and giving identity to the country.

However, changes in the political landscape notwithstanding, regional parties don’t have much to show in terms of redefining developmental policies that reflect regional aspirations. Whether it is relatively developed Tamil Nadu that elects regional parties for a long period or Odisha, India’s poorest state with a regional party in power for more than one and half decades or newly formed state in the country – Telangana. They do not have different economic policies to boast. Rather, there is a rush to adopt economic liberalisation, a national economic policy initiated by the Congress and supported by the other national party, the BJP.

Take, for example, K.Chandrashekar Rao (KCR) of the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (previously Telangana Rashtra Samithi), a key player in country’s regional politics. He could not evolve an alternative employment and industrial development policy to fix regional disparity, farmers suicides. Except sporadic freebies for the poor, there is no concrete step in the direction of fulfilling regional aspirations. It is the same with Odisha Chief Minister Navin Patnaik, representing the Biju Janata Dal. There has not been much change in the lives of the poor under his leadership. His aggressive industrialisation has led to further precipitation of regional disparity and livelihood crisis. Bihar’s ruling regional party is no different. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has been courting investments and high GDP growth.

While many regional parties spare no opportunity to accuse the Congress and BJP of sycophancy and a feudal culture, regional parties are not far behind. In fact, they have perfected the art of sycophancy and dynastic politics beating the BJP and Congress parties. Some prominent examples are the DMK in Tamil Nadu, the BRS in Telangana, the Shivsena in Maharashtra and the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab, the National Conference in Jammu and Kashmir. Interestingly, family feuds over succession have led to a split of both the Shiv Sena and the Shiromani Akali.

There are many commonalities among regional parties. First, almost all of these regional parties are led by dynasties. The clear examples being the National Conference headed by Farooq Abdullah who has handed over the reigns  to his son Omar Abdullah. In Tamil Nadu based Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), there was a war of succession between the two sons of party supremo Karunanidhi as to who will be the heir and finally his younger son, M K Stalin won.

In Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray’s nephew Raj Thackeray formed his own political outfit, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), which has considerably dented Thackeray’s vote bank apart from having a detrimental impact on the social fabric of Maharashtra, especially Mumbai, by making life miserable for immigrants. In the case of Telangana, BRS supremo KCR has already indicated this trend through his action by making his son and municipal Administration Minister KT Rama Rao as Working President of the party.

Many of these regional parties join hands with national parties and give up their core issues to keep alliances afloat. However, when they are embroiled in personal controversies they start talking about discrimination by the Central Government. While the going is smooth, they have no qualms about giving up their convictions on crucial issues. Once there are charges of corruption or there are other serious accusations, these regional parties try to rake up emotional issues and up the ante against the centre. While there is no doubt that Indian federalism has a long way to go and some of the demands made by these regional parties are legitimate, it is the timing of their demands and use of rhetoric at that point of time which gives rise for suspicion.

While all these regional parties were established with the goal of providing a voice to genuine regional demands for strengthening India’s federal structure, some of them have moved away from their original ideals and fell prey to the same vices which they were supposed to take on – authoritarianism, family rule and corruption. By misusing the mandate given by the people, they relegate genuine and legitimate grievances of their respective states.

It may be too early to rate regional parties’ development performance. But India’s long experiment with regional parties offers little evidence to suggest that regional parties performed differently than national parties. They may have fuelled regional pride but in terms of regional development, their performance hardly differed from that of national parties. Rather, regional parties now adopt and implement policies of national parties at the state level, than formulation of policies which can lead to meet regional aspirations. It may be long enough to gauge a trend. And the trend is that regional parties are divorcing themselves from their assumed mandate of fulfilling local aspirations, leave away gearing up to fulfil  national aspirations.

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