The crisis in India’s regional parties
The post 1989 normal is broken. The rise of the BJP system - much like the Congress system of the early decades after Independence - has thrown regional parties off-gear.Updated: Jul 06, 2019 18:43 IST
If a week is a long time in politics, 30 years is an eternity.
It was in 1989 when Indian politics saw a decisive shift. At the centre, the era of Congress hegemony ended - not to be replaced by another large national formation but a constellation of forces, where parties with strong regional roots played a key role. In the states, specific regional parties, often rooted in movements of marginalised castes, became ascendant. The 1996, 1998, 1999, 2004 and 2009 general elections all confirmed the trend. The Union could only be run with the support of regional parties. Coalitions, it seemed, were here to stay - and be it the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), they could only form the government if they showed a willingness to accommodate smaller parties from across the country.
The 2014 election overturned this thesis - with the BJP winning a majority on its own. But it felt like a one-off event. Indian politics would return to the old normal, predicted most observers. But the 2019 election saw Narendra Modi return with a bigger majority. This, then, must prompt the question: Is there a new normal emerging, where the era of regional parties being the swing force at the Centre is ending?
While significant attention has been paid to the crisis in the Congress after the election results of May 23, there needs to be more focus on the state of the rest of the Opposition. Both the results, and developments since then, show that those regional parties are now fighting a real battle for survival.
Take the south. In Andhra Pradesh, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) is imploding. N Chandrababu Naidu saw himself as a man who could select the next prime minister till six weeks ago, active in bringing together non-BJP forces. Now, he is struggling to keep his own party intact, with four Rajya Sabha MPs defecting to the BJP and a steady stream of state leaders crossing over. With the BJP targeting Andhra Pradesh (which sends 25 MPs to the Lok Sabha) for the next election, if this trend continues, do not be surprised if the saffron outfit becomes a key player and turns the politics of the state genuinely triangular. In Karnataka, the Janata Dal (Secular) is in government. But the defeat of party patriarch HD Deve Gowda, the fragility of its coalition with the Congress, and the major inroads made by the BJP in the state, is sounding alarm bells in the party.
In the east, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) protected its citadel of Odisha and Naveen Patnaik returned to power for the fifth time. But the state voted differently in the Lok Sabha polls, with the BJP winning eight seats. The saffron outfit is now biding its time, for it realises that after Patnaik, the BJD, in the absence of any second-rung leader, may well crumble. In West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress remains a dominant player. But with the BJP making major gains in the state, emerging as the principal opposition, weaning away a substantial segment of leaders and voters from the rest of the political field, and posing a formidable challenge in the 2021 assembly polls, Mamata Banerjee can no longer rest easy.
In the west, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra faced a severe drubbing, with a member of Sharad Pawar‘s own family losing for the first time. The state government’s decision to grant reservations to Marathas, now upheld by the Bombay High Court, will also have an electoral impact, and could well see a swing of Maratha votes - considered the NCP’s base - towards the BJP in the upcoming assembly polls.
But the real churn is happening in the north. In Bihar, not only did the Rashtriya Janata Dal fail to win a single seat, it faces a crisis of relevance. The party’s supreme leader, Lalu Prasad, is in jail, and unwell; his son, Tejaswi, is perceived as inadequate to the task and his disappearing act since the election has eroded his credibility severely. The party’s own Yadav vote base has seen a dent with a section of the community moving to the BJP. The Janata Dal (United), the BJP’s ally, has won 16 seats in the state - but it was primarily because it rode on the Modi wave. On his own, chief minister Nitish Kumar is the weakest of the three forces in the state.
And of course, the most telling example of this crisis is in Uttar Pradesh. The Samajwadi Party (SP)-Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) alliance has ended. They fought the BJP separately in 2014 and 2017 and lost. They fought the BJP together this time and lost. Their own vote share has shrunk. Communities which were seen as loyal are no longer captive vote banks. And if the BJP wins the 2022 assembly polls yet again, both SP and BSP will struggle to make a comeback.
To be sure, there are vibrant regional formations. Be it the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, the DMK-AIADMK, or the YSR Congress Party, or even BJD or Trinamool, these forces are either in power or dominant forces in their states. Even in the north, older caste-based parties will not suddenly disappear. They will remain influential and strong electoral contenders. This is in no way an obituary of the regional parties.
But it is to suggest that something fundamental is shifting in Indian politics. The post-1989 normal is broken. The rise of the BJP system - much like the Congress system of the early decades after Independence - has thrown regional parties off gear. Till they return to their roots, widen their social alliances instead of relying on old arithmetic, improve their governance record, strengthen their organisations, and strike a balance between their regional outlook and national picture, their future may not be as bright as their past.