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Rumble in the regions

The compulsions of coalition politics are forcing India’s two main national parties -- Congress & BJP -- to increasingly cede political space to smaller, state-level parties while at the same time adapting to regional issues, writes Samar Khurshid. Regional roundabout

delhi Updated: Nov 25, 2012 02:29 IST
Samar Khurshid

In the aftermath of the recent death of Shiv Sena supreme Bal Thackeray, Mumbai was shutdown by an outpouring of both physical and moral support towards the regional stalwart.

It was a tell-tale indicator of how regional parties are now forces to be reckoned with and how they can assert their dominance in the national political zeitgeist.

Even the first day of the winter session of Parliament saw regional powers taking charge and drowning out the voice of the government — while Trinamool Congress’ no-trust motion against the UPA was declined by the Lok Sabha Speaker, the session was subsequently adjourned after both Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party staged protests in the well of the house; even the Upper house could not function.

Of late, the Congress-led government has had to bow down to most demands made by its allies. Key policy decisions including raising fuel prices and even the railways budget were opposed by Trinamool Congress (which eventually quit the alliance.)

“The main reason why national parties are surrendering space to regional parties,” says political scientist and parliamentary expert Subhash Kashyap, “is that our two main national powers do not respect each other. National parties prefer to yield to smaller regional allies rather than deal with the opposition. This lets small parties indulge in tactics of brinkmanship, bluff and blackmail.”

At present, the Congress on its own is in power in 10 states besides being part of ruling coalitions in Maharashtra, Kerala and Jammu and Kashmir.

Its rival national party, BJP, faces the same dilemma with the party ruling only in 6 states apart from being partners in coalition governments in Bihar, Punjab and Jharkhand.

Over the last two governments, national parties have realised the importance of regional matters. Campaigns can no longer be fought purely on national platforms and parliamentary functioning, more often than not, revolves around regional issues.

A study by PRS Legislative Research showed that between 2004-2008, nearly 25% of parliamentary debates were on regional subjects. Of the debates raised by Congress MPs, 26% were on regional issues, which figured in 25% of the debates raised by the BJP.

However, president of the Delhi-based thinktank, Centre for Policy Research, Pratap Bhanu Mehta disagrees."There is no structural phenomenon suggesting that we are at a qualitatively different stage in Indian politics. Regionalism is not the issue — it is just an excuse used by the national parties which are struggling because of immense internal disarray. Both Congress and BJP can’t get their act together so smaller parties are thriving."

At the recent tenth annual Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, Punjab deputy chief minister and Shiromani Akali Dal leader Sukhbir Singh Badal had said, “The existing political situation of the country today is such that even the Congress and BJP are regional in nature. Look at the situation of Congress in UP, Bihar and West Bengal…”

He was in agreement with Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav who said that that the nation’s next Prime Minister could come from a regional party.

“In reality, Congress is the only party which has been national for a long time,” says sociologist Shiv Visvanathan.

“Even a national party like BJP is a coalition in a regional perspective,” he says arguing that the leaders of state governments in Karnatka and Gujarat are actually regionalist but are attempting to portray a national image. He also refers to regionalist parties like Shiv Sena which, he says, become more parochial after national parties begin to focus on local issues.

“In the age of coalition, regional parties have a very powerful role to play. The mathematics of parliament, therefore, demands a look at regional coalitions.”

In the end, parliamentary politics, and similarly the nation, is slowly surrendering to regional political powers.

They play the roles of allies-turned-opposition, kingmakers and even backbreakers. How the national parties will respond, remains to be seen.

National parties no longer?
Focusing on regional alliances -- Congress

Having dominated India’s political scene for several years since independence, the Congress is now struggling to maintain its national charm with its presence diminishing in many states.

The party that boasts of presence in every block and village has been virtually reduced to a marginal force in many states, including Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.

These four states account for 201 of the 545 seats in Lok Sabha. “No doubt, Congress’ footprint has been reduced. Its support base has declined substantially in the past 20 years,” said Zoya Hasan of JNU, an expert on Congress politics.

Many Congress leaders admitted that emergence of strong regional parties have forced the party to re-think its strategy.

“The focus is now on winning power at the centre. We are ready to accept secondary status in states where regional parties have dominance,” a senior leader said.

This is in line with the party’s resolve at the 2003 Shimla conclave to go for alliances at the national level without compromising on ideology to keep BJP and its allies out of power.

The move was in stark contrast to the stand adopted at the 1998 Panchmarhi session where Congress decided they would stay away from coalition politics.

Accordingly, alliance politics helped the Congress increase its vote share in the 2004 and 2009 parliamentary elections.

In 2004, the party won 145 seats with a total vote share of 26.53% and stitched a coalition with regional forces — that came to be known as United Progressive Alliance — to regain power at the Centre.

In 2009, the Congress’ vote share increased to 28.52%, taking its tally in Lok Sabha to 206 and helped UPA retain power.

Until 1977, the Congress was a dominant political force with much of the opposition coming only from within.

The political landscape underwent a major change from the days of one-party dominance to mid 90s when regional parties began to hold the sway and national parties got marginalised.

Since then, India has been witnessing multi-party coalitions with regional parties having greater say in policy decisions at the central level. (ByAurangzeb Naqshbandi)

Federalism is the new agenda -- BJP
It may be a party that espoused a “one nation, one culture” principle during its rise, but the BJP today resembles a conglomeration of regional parties.

The party is strong in some pockets, and weak in others. The predominant share of their Lok Sabha tally comes from a handful of states, where some chief ministers run the show.

The central leadership cannot be said to have the same mass base.

Ninety-three of BJP’s 116 seats in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls came from just eight states: Karnataka (19), MP (16), Gujarat (15), Bihar (12), Chhattisgarh (10), Maharashtra (9), Jharkhand (8), and Rajasthan (4).

The BJP’s vote percentages also show interesting regional trends. In 2009 it got less than 10% vote in nine states: Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, West Bengal, Sikkim, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura.

In other words, the party is very weak in the south apart from Karnataka, where it scored its highest tally courtesy Lingayat leader BS Yeddyurappa, who is now set to form his own party.

In the North-East, the party has a presence only in Assam. But, it got more than 40% of the votes polled Gujarat, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Goa.

Significantly, a party that espoused a strong nationalist plank exhibits much regional disparity in its popularity. Mindful of this, it has gradually toned down its stand and now celebrates federalism.

Jana Sangh ideologue Deen Dayal Upadhyaya was an exponent of the single-nation principle, and said India had erred in organising its polity on the federal rather than unitary principle.

He, however, saw the unitary state he admired as the 'head of the family' under which even Panchayats would flourish.

The Jana Sangh and BJP’s association with a Hindu and Hindi-centric idea made it difficult for them to succeed in the south and north-east.

The coalition era under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, however, made the BJP seek such expansion through alliances with parties like the DMK, TDP and even Trinamool Congress.

The ideological plank of this alliance politics is now federalism, of which the BJP now prides itself as the chief exponent, as in the recent Lokpal debate.(By Vikas Pathak)

Ground report from the states:
1. Madhya Pradesh
The regionalisation of Congress and BJP began here in 2003, when Congress fell to a BJP which dumped the Ram Janmabhoomi movement for the hyperlocal Bijli-Sadak-Pani. BJP’s regionalisation crystallised over the years, with the local party gradually creating a buffer between itself and Delhi. Two advantages came from this: local issues won votes and, it insulated them from the ills plaguing BJP’s central leadership. Now, Congress is trying hard to catch up.
-- Ranjan Srivastava

2. Chhattisgarh
The state being pre-dominantly agrarian, the focus of the BJP and the Congress here is rural masses. The cheap rice scheme emerged as the main poll plank under the public distribution system (PDS). The ruling BJP secured its own food revolution in the state through a widely appreciated model PDS. The aspirations of panchayats, scheduled tribe (nearly 32% tribal population) and scheduled caste (12%) never lose sight of politicians. -- Ejaz Kaiser

3. Gujarat
The state has become a stronghold of the BJP under the leadership of three-time CM Narendra Modi. Although criticised for his supposed right-wing stance and his handling of the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots, he has been praised for his promotion of industrial growth. Modi is now trying to project himself as a national leader and a possible PM candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. But he does not yet enjoy the image of a national leader.

4. Karnataka
Janata Dal Secular is the strongest regional party and a kingmaker. From 2004, it has grown stronger and has formed governments with Congress and BJP. Now, the launch of BJP rebel BS Yeddyurappa’s Karnataka Janata Party by will be a darkhorse in the next elections. It poses a threat to the vote banks of both national parties.
-- Naveen Ammembala

5. Tamil Nadu
The state has been alternately ruled by the DMK and the AIADMK since 1967. They remain integral to coalitions at the Centre. The DMK is a crucial ally of the UPA but is often seen applying pressure on the government. In the case of AIADMK, it was its leader J Jayalalithaa who brought down the AB Vajapayee-led BJP government in 1999.

6. Uttar Pradesh
Congress and BJP remain sidelined, as the Samajwadi and Bahujan Samaj Party have dominated UP politics for the past two decades. The two parties are important supporters of the Congress on certain issues but throw their weight around for political mileage. The two have also begun to dominate parliamentary debates.
-- Umesh Raghuvanshi

7. West Bengal
Trinamool Congress overthrew 32 years of Left rule in West Bengal in 2011. Mamata Banerjee has since been an ally and subsequent enemy of the UPA. She’s bullied them on various issues often forcing a re-think on policy. She plans to expand her power base and plans to field candidates for all seats in the Meghalaya assembly elections.

8. Bihar
Janata Dal (United) was formed in 2003. It joined the NDA in 1998 and took power in 2005. The Nitish Kumar-led government won a second term in 2009 on the development platform. Now, Kumar wants to project himself at the national level. He opposes Modi as a PM candidate. Kumar, himself, is a strong possibility for the candidature.
-- Ashok Mishra.

9. Punjab
Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) under president Sukhbir Singh Badal has expanded beyond the Sikh community. The SAD made history in the assembly elections in January when the SAD-BJP alliance became the first government in Punjab to retain power for a second term. The SAD had also dethroned the Congress in February 2007.

10. Kerala
Nehru once called the Indian Muslim League a dead horse but the League retorted that it was a sleeping lion. Ironically it became a trusted ally of Congress. After Congress it is the second largest party in the ruling United Democratic Front. Since 2004 its MP, E Ahmed has been a junior minister in the UPA government.
--Ramesh Babu

11. Jharkhand
Over the last 12 years, two regional parties have risen: Jharkhand Vikas Morcha-Prajatantrik led by BJP rebel Babulal Marandi and All Jharkhand Students Union led by deputy CM SK Mahato. The AJSU’s popularity is soaring with youngster. The party, along with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha helped BJP grab power in 2010.
-- B Vijay Murty

12. Nagaland
Naga People’s Front is the only regional party that has defied a general disillusionment with local political players. NPF took the centre-stage following the 2003 assembly elections. In the ‘08 assembly elections, it won 26 seats. Congress won 23. NPF reinvented itself in ‘10 by pandering to sentiments of integration. In 2011, it won four of the 12 Manipur seats it contested.