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Votaries of regional aspirations
The politics of coalitions, regional assertiveness and the push for smaller states to address regional imbalances are just some of the reasons that have made regional parties necessities in Indian politics
Issue Date - 16/02/2012
The year was 1983, when N. T. Rama Rao floated the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). Who knew in less than a decade and a half this party would go on to stitch a rag tag coalition of other regional parties to prop a government at the centre under the United Front banner in 1996. While the merits of this experiment have been much debated, it did become the strongest statement on the growth & importance of local parties in the Indian polity.

The signs, of course, had been long in the making. In 1967, buoyed by a massive anti Hindi agitation the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) stumped the mighty Indian National Congress (INC) to capture power in Tamil Nadu. The party, founded in 1949, thus earned the distinction of being the first ever state level political outfit to form a government with a clear majority. And though that win was then considered peripheral in the larger picture of Indian politics, its effects were far reaching, what with the growth of the Akali movement in Punjab and the revival of the National Conference in Jammu & Kashmir.

But even before the turning points of 1967 and 1983, regional political outfits had dotted the country’s electoral space. In fact, the country’s first ever parliamentary elections in 1952 were contested by as many as 55 parties. By the year 2009, this figure had gone up to 370. A further break up of these numbers reveals that in 1952, there were 18 state parties, 29 registered parties and eight national parties in the fray. In 2009, this composition had changed to 36 state parties, 188 registered parties and just six national parties. This is also reflected in the composition of the Lok Sabha. Thus, while the first saw representatives from 22 parties, the 2009 figure was 37. In terms of vote share, regional parties have seen a steady increase from 11.2% in 1984 to 28.4% in 2009.

The growth of regional parties has impacted state politics in profound ways. Thus, while in Tamil Nadu power has swung between the DMK and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), in Uttar Pradesh, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) have reduced the Congress and the BJP to fighting for third and fourth place. In states like Punjab too national parties are confined to a supportive role (the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP alliance in which the former is contesting 94 seats, the latter just 23 in the 2012 Assembly polls). Still elsewhere, as in Kerala, national parties cannot form standalone governments and need support from regional outfits (in this case the Kerala Indian Union Muslim League is the largest component of the Congress-led ruling United Democratic Front which has other regional parties as well). The politics of coalitions, regional assertiveness and the push for smaller states to address regional imbalances are just some of the reasons that have made regional parties necessities in Indian politics. There is also the post liberalisation economic logic of catering to a multiplicity of competing business interests, a task that is beyond the pale of just a handful of big parties.

“National parties cannot compromise on their agenda to satisfy people of any one state. We on the other hand have a unique vision about the Kashmir problem and can freely speak about it and make demands. We have emerged as the voice of people,” Mehbooba Mufti, the President of Jammu & Kashmir based People’s Democratic Party (PDP) tells B&E. The freedom that Mufti points to has yielded some interesting trends in the polity. The PDP, for instance, despite being an ally of the Congress had a good working relationship with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and got approved a bus route connecting Srinagar and Muzzafarabad in the Pakistan occupied portion of the state from a government that was otherwise extremely rigid on issues concerning Pakistan.

On the flip side are parties that despite being alliance partners find it difficult to pull along. Think Mamata Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) and the Congress. The PDP and the AITC are similar regional parties in that they are breakaways of a national party (in this case the Congress). Another kind is the National Conference which was formed as an independent outfit in 1932, but in 1965 became the J&K branch of the Congress. Still different are parties like the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD founded in 1967 by former Congressman Choudhary Charan Singh) which though breakaways have displayed little hesitation in allaying with all colours in the political spectrum. While in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, RLD was with the SP, in 2009 it sided with the BJP, and in 2011 threw in its lot with the Congress-led UPA government.

Nanmaran, spokesperson of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK, a breakaway of the DMK), refutes the claim that all regional parties function with purely narrow motives. “Our leader Vaiko (V. Gopalswamy) as a Member of Parliament has brought benefits to Tamil Nadu as it is only natural to have special interests in one’s own home state,” he explains.

State General Secretary of the volunteers’ wing of the DMK, Umapathy believes that regional parties are natural to India’s caste considerations. “This is a country of different identities. Different regions and language groups have their own aspirations which can be served only by regional parties.”

Not all Indian states have however fallen to the lure of regional powerhouses. Karnataka, for instance, has seen many failed experiments which include the Congress (O) of Nijalingappa, Lokashakthi of Ramakrishna Hegde, Karnataka Congress Party and Karnataka Vikas Party of S. Bangarappa, Kannada Desha of Prof. M. D. Nanjundaswamy, Janata Party of Vijay Mallya, Kannada Nadu of Vijay Sankeshwar, Pragati Ranga of P. Lankesh, Sarvodaya Karnataka of Devanur Mahadeva and Suvarna Karnataka of Mahima Patel. It is this list of failures that has kept seasoned politicians like B. S. Yeddyurappa (a Congressman) from attempting a regional version despite not being on the best of terms with the party leadership at the centre.

Despite being votaries of regional aspirations, local parties are often accused of having done little for the people of their state. D Ravikumar, former MLA from the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (a Dravidian political party in Tamil Nadu) despairs, “Regional parties have come into existence either by pushing for state welfare or by pushing for rights of a particular caste within a state under the guise of state welfare. However, few have done justice to their founding principles. It is because they have failed to fulfil regional aspirations that voters are now turning towards national parties.” S. S. Dwivedi, a Lucknow based professor of political science however sees no imminent danger to regional parties. “Regional parties can never lose their relevance. As peripheral castes and neglected regions become more assertive, it is natural that they will seek political space. In fact, such parties have the potential to add richness to the political debates of the date and also transform the polity into a truly federal one.”

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