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Analyses Last Updated: May 1, 2018 - 10:36:11 AM


The Future of Regional Parties in India
By Akhilesh Pillalamarri, Diplomat 30/4/18
Apr 30, 2018 - 1:47:14 PM

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As the Bharatiya Janata Party seals in nationwide dominance, what fate awaits India’s wide range of regional parties?

Judging by recent trends in Indian politics, it seems as though the triumph of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is ensured throughout the country at both the national and state levels. However, the picture on the ground is more complex. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s re-election in the 2019 general elections is not as much of a shoo-in as it would have been a year ago. The primary reason for this is the BJP’s inability to deliver swiftly upon its developmental promises, as well as heightened tensions between various castes and between Hindus and Muslims throughout much of northern India.

Therefore, for now, the BJP’s top priority is to prevent its strength from being sapped in its own heartland. This in turn makes it even more difficult for the party to take on strong and entrenched regional parties in eastern and southern India, especially in states such as West Bengal, Odisha, and Tamil Nadu. Regional parties, therefore, remain strong, with a vital role to play in India’s political system, along with, possibly, the main national opposition party, the Indian National Congress.

Political scientists have noted that in the 1990s India’s political system entered a period of “fragmentation” during which regional parties grew strong in states such as Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, and others, as the previously dominant Congress weakened. Most national governments in Delhi were weakened because they had to form coalitions with smaller, regional parties. The victory of the BJP in 2014 with a simple majority in the Lok Sabha (Lower House) of Parliament is thought to have begun a process of reversing this trend, especially after its subsequent victories in India’s states. The BJP rules 15 out of 29 of India’s states, and is a coalition partner in five more states.

However, the BJP remains vulnerable. It won many of these elections because the opposition vote was split between many parties; the BJP won a simple majority of votes in only a few electoral districts. In recent by-elections in Uttar Pradesh, by contrast, the BJP lost all the seats contested because of an alliance between regional opposition parties. While other parties often hate each other as much or more than they hate the BJP, even a temporary electoral alliance between anti-BJP parties could disrupt its ability to obtain a majority of Lok Sabha seats in the 2019 national election.

And the trouble isn’t only with oppositional regional parties; fears that the BJP is growing too strong has driven some of its erstwhile allies away. For example, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in Andhra Pradesh broke its alliance with the BJP in March 2018, osentably for the minor reason of the central government refusing to grant the state special economic status. However the real reason that the TDP in Andhra Pradesh as well as the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra have been distancing themselves from the BJP has been to mark out their own distinctiveness.

Why have regional parties continued to play such an important role in the Indian political landscape, even when they are associated with political fragmentation and uncertainty?

In general, regional parties are often reflective of their regional population’s needs and values, particularly at the local level. Regional parties may be effective at the state level because they can focus all their efforts locally and not have to worry about winning national elections. Additionally, by focusing on regional nationalism, as opposed to caste or religious politics, the ideology of regional parties allows for a sort of subnationalism that aims to uplift the entire dominant ethnic group living in their state, instead of one particular caste or religious group.

This has been particularly evident in Tamil Nadu, which for the past 50 years, has been dominated by two regional, “Dravidian,” parties led mostly by famous Tamil film stars: the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Both parties have consistently used their power over the past few decades to attempt to create equalized economic development through the state, including the implementation of a 69 percent quota for lower castes in educational institutions, the development of industrial estates, and a wholly subsidized noon midday meal in schools.

Many of these policies have been adopted in other Indian states in the past few years, sometimes by the BJP and Congress, and sometimes by other, effective regional political parties. One such party has been the Trinamool Congress (TMC) of West Bengal, led by Mamata Banerjee, who despite her regular controversial comments has promoted populist and developmental politics. Her continued popularity will make it quite difficult for the BJP to win big in West Bengal on both the local and national levels, though it may run a strong opposition.

In India, regional identities tend to be stronger in coastal, eastern, and southern states with long histories of political independence. On the other hand, regional identities are significantly weaker in northern, particularly Hindi-speaking states because of their collective size and multiplicity of socioeconomic environments. The so-called Hindi-belt, situated on the Ganges plains, has been the site of numerous empires and kingdoms, many of which were ephemeral and, as such, there is no strong ethnic or regional identity. Rather, local parties in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar tend to be based on castes. For example, two of Uttar Pradesh’s largest parties, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) represent the interests of the Yadav and Dalit caste groups respectively; these two parties allied to defeat the BJP in Uttar Pradesh’s recent by-elections. A similar situation prevails in Bihar, where the two main regional parties are a Yadav-oriented party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and more upper caste Janata Dal (United). All these parties also compete to be the most “secular,” that is to seek the Muslim vote in addition to Hindu votes. While the BJP can thrive if these parties are fighting each other, a combination of votes for these parties, or a decrease in some castes’ support for the BJP, could cost it essential support in a region rife with caste- and religion-based politics.

The BJP has done well, in particular, in areas where there have been no strong regional (as opposed to caste-based) parties with a developmental agenda, especially where other national parties have been entrenched for decades without focusing on developmental policies. Hence, the BJP defeated Congress in Maharashtra in 2014 and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Tripura in 2018.

Regional parties therefore have a role to play in many states, especially those with stronger regional identities, or in places where they pursued policies of development before the BJP gained a large foothold in the state. Where regional parties are competing with a national party, the competition is almost always a two-way contest, between the local party, and the BJP, because the question is really between regional and national models of development and identity, between localism, and nationalism and cosmopolitanism.

In this sense, from an electoralate’s perspective, there is little difference between the center-left Congress and the center-right BJP, because they both represent a middle-class, pan-Indian identity that is broader-based than region, language, and caste. With the weakening of the Congress Party, voters who do not want to vote for regional parties have switched from the Congress to the BJP. For example, in recent elections in Tripura, individuals who previously voted for Congress switched en masse to the BJP.

However, the regional parties do not have the advantage they have at the local level at the national level. While there have been suggestions that the regional parties combine to form a third front (in opposition to both the Congress and the BJP), such a government would be disastrous, because of the high level of factionalism and competition between the members of such a coalition, many of which have no vision and no policies in common other than opposing the BJP. No single party would win enough seats to govern alone, so any third front would inevitably be a coalition government. An attempt by various opposition parties to ally against the then-dominant Congress in 1977 fell apart by 1980, as the various factions, devoid of a common enemy, soon began competing against each other, often with the the backing of Congress. It is likely that any future third front government would bring with it a period of chaos and political and economic stagnation.

Moreover, at the national level, the ideological differences between the BJP and the Congress Party do matter because they do have alternative ideological, and to a smaller extent, economic, visions for India, its place in the world, and what it means to be Indian. No party other than the Congress has the national organization and name-brand recognition needed to win at a national level. While this is unlikely in 2019, Rahul Gandhi, the party’s leader, seems to have found the backbone and political sense that he was previously missing. It is not impossible that he may be prime minister in the future one day, perhaps leading a coalition supported by some regional parties, but certainly not through a “third front.”

Ultimately, even with the BJP’s dominance, India’s regional parties still have an important role to play. Whether through local developmental strategies that impact hundreds of millions of people, or as kingmakers in highly contested elections, India’s regional parties are here to stay. They may not dominate India’s political landscape as they did in the 1990s, but they will serve to keep pressure on its national parties and to retain their strength in the regions where they have been most successful.

As the Bharatiya Janata Party seals in nationwide dominance, what fate awaits India’s wide range of regional parties?
By Akhilesh Pillalamarri, Diplomat 30/

Judging by recent trends in Indian politics, it seems as though the triumph of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is ensured throughout the country at both the national and state levels. However, the picture on the ground is more complex. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s re-election in the 2019 general elections is not as much of a shoo-in as it would have been a year ago. The primary reason for this is the BJP’s inability to deliver swiftly upon its developmental promises, as well as heightened tensions between various castes and between Hindus and Muslims throughout much of northern India.

Therefore, for now, the BJP’s top priority is to prevent its strength from being sapped in its own heartland. This in turn makes it even more difficult for the party to take on strong and entrenched regional parties in eastern and southern India, especially in states such as West Bengal, Odisha, and Tamil Nadu. Regional parties, therefore, remain strong, with a vital role to play in India’s political system, along with, possibly, the main national opposition party, the Indian National Congress.

Political scientists have noted that in the 1990s India’s political system entered a period of “fragmentation” during which regional parties grew strong in states such as Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, and others, as the previously dominant Congress weakened. Most national governments in Delhi were weakened because they had to form coalitions with smaller, regional parties. The victory of the BJP in 2014 with a simple majority in the Lok Sabha (Lower House) of Parliament is thought to have begun a process of reversing this trend, especially after its subsequent victories in India’s states. The BJP rules 15 out of 29 of India’s states, and is a coalition partner in five more states.

However, the BJP remains vulnerable. It won many of these elections because the opposition vote was split between many parties; the BJP won a simple majority of votes in only a few electoral districts. In recent by-elections in Uttar Pradesh, by contrast, the BJP lost all the seats contested because of an alliance between regional opposition parties. While other parties often hate each other as much or more than they hate the BJP, even a temporary electoral alliance between anti-BJP parties could disrupt its ability to obtain a majority of Lok Sabha seats in the 2019 national election.

And the trouble isn’t only with oppositional regional parties; fears that the BJP is growing too strong has driven some of its erstwhile allies away. For example, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in Andhra Pradesh broke its alliance with the BJP in March 2018, osentably for the minor reason of the central government refusing to grant the state special economic status. However the real reason that the TDP in Andhra Pradesh as well as the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra have been distancing themselves from the BJP has been to mark out their own distinctiveness.

Why have regional parties continued to play such an important role in the Indian political landscape, even when they are associated with political fragmentation and uncertainty?

In general, regional parties are often reflective of their regional population’s needs and values, particularly at the local level. Regional parties may be effective at the state level because they can focus all their efforts locally and not have to worry about winning national elections. Additionally, by focusing on regional nationalism, as opposed to caste or religious politics, the ideology of regional parties allows for a sort of subnationalism that aims to uplift the entire dominant ethnic group living in their state, instead of one particular caste or religious group.

This has been particularly evident in Tamil Nadu, which for the past 50 years, has been dominated by two regional, “Dravidian,” parties led mostly by famous Tamil film stars: the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Both parties have consistently used their power over the past few decades to attempt to create equalized economic development through the state, including the implementation of a 69 percent quota for lower castes in educational institutions, the development of industrial estates, and a wholly subsidized noon midday meal in schools.

Many of these policies have been adopted in other Indian states in the past few years, sometimes by the BJP and Congress, and sometimes by other, effective regional political parties. One such party has been the Trinamool Congress (TMC) of West Bengal, led by Mamata Banerjee, who despite her regular controversial comments has promoted populist and developmental politics. Her continued popularity will make it quite difficult for the BJP to win big in West Bengal on both the local and national levels, though it may run a strong opposition.

In India, regional identities tend to be stronger in coastal, eastern, and southern states with long histories of political independence. On the other hand, regional identities are significantly weaker in northern, particularly Hindi-speaking states because of their collective size and multiplicity of socioeconomic environments. The so-called Hindi-belt, situated on the Ganges plains, has been the site of numerous empires and kingdoms, many of which were ephemeral and, as such, there is no strong ethnic or regional identity. Rather, local parties in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar tend to be based on castes. For example, two of Uttar Pradesh’s largest parties, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) represent the interests of the Yadav and Dalit caste groups respectively; these two parties allied to defeat the BJP in Uttar Pradesh’s recent by-elections. A similar situation prevails in Bihar, where the two main regional parties are a Yadav-oriented party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and more upper caste Janata Dal (United). All these parties also compete to be the most “secular,” that is to seek the Muslim vote in addition to Hindu votes. While the BJP can thrive if these parties are fighting each other, a combination of votes for these parties, or a decrease in some castes’ support for the BJP, could cost it essential support in a region rife with caste- and religion-based politics.

The BJP has done well, in particular, in areas where there have been no strong regional (as opposed to caste-based) parties with a developmental agenda, especially where other national parties have been entrenched for decades without focusing on developmental policies. Hence, the BJP defeated Congress in Maharashtra in 2014 and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Tripura in 2018.

Regional parties therefore have a role to play in many states, especially those with stronger regional identities, or in places where they pursued policies of development before the BJP gained a large foothold in the state. Where regional parties are competing with a national party, the competition is almost always a two-way contest, between the local party, and the BJP, because the question is really between regional and national models of development and identity, between localism, and nationalism and cosmopolitanism.

In this sense, from an electoralate’s perspective, there is little difference between the center-left Congress and the center-right BJP, because they both represent a middle-class, pan-Indian identity that is broader-based than region, language, and caste. With the weakening of the Congress Party, voters who do not want to vote for regional parties have switched from the Congress to the BJP. For example, in recent elections in Tripura, individuals who previously voted for Congress switched en masse to the BJP.

However, the regional parties do not have the advantage they have at the local level at the national level. While there have been suggestions that the regional parties combine to form a third front (in opposition to both the Congress and the BJP), such a government would be disastrous, because of the high level of factionalism and competition between the members of such a coalition, many of which have no vision and no policies in common other than opposing the BJP. No single party would win enough seats to govern alone, so any third front would inevitably be a coalition government. An attempt by various opposition parties to ally against the then-dominant Congress in 1977 fell apart by 1980, as the various factions, devoid of a common enemy, soon began competing against each other, often with the the backing of Congress. It is likely that any future third front government would bring with it a period of chaos and political and economic stagnation.

Moreover, at the national level, the ideological differences between the BJP and the Congress Party do matter because they do have alternative ideological, and to a smaller extent, economic, visions for India, its place in the world, and what it means to be Indian. No party other than the Congress has the national organization and name-brand recognition needed to win at a national level. While this is unlikely in 2019, Rahul Gandhi, the party’s leader, seems to have found the backbone and political sense that he was previously missing. It is not impossible that he may be prime minister in the future one day, perhaps leading a coalition supported by some regional parties, but certainly not through a “third front.”

Ultimately, even with the BJP’s dominance, India’s regional parties still have an important role to play. Whether through local developmental strategies that impact hundreds of millions of people, or as kingmakers in highly contested elections, India’s regional parties are here to stay. They may not dominate India’s political landscape as they did in the 1990s, but they will serve to keep pressure on its national parties and to retain their strength in the regions where they have been most successful.


Source:Ocnus.net 2018

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