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Post-election 2016: The bite of regional parties

  By Vijay Darda | 24-05-2016

In a democracy, the periodic elections serve many purposes. Through their mechanism, we not only choose the governments that would be running our affairs, but we also get a sense of their hopes and aspirations. It is through the choices that the people make at the electronic voting machines that we get an idea of their opinions and assessments. If their collective voting behaviour reflects their opinion about the ideas and policy options that are put forth by the parties, then their assessments are about the relative merits and demerits of the leaders.

We have just finished a round of elections in five states – West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam and Puducherry. 

The spin masters and the political spokespersons may project the outcome as a big win for the BJP, and as a natural corollary a big loss for the Congress, but the real picture as usual is pretty different. The fact remains that in three states – West Bengal (294 seats), Tamil Nadu (234) and Kerala (140) and the tiny Puducherry (30) – the BJP was nowhere in the race for power. Even after the elections, its leaders have been congratulating themselves for improving their vote share in these states, and for ‘opening its account’ in Kerala. Can this be the measure of success for India’s ruling party by any reasonable standards?

Yes, it is true that the party has won in Assam (126), and this is a big victory. But even this win has come through an alliance with the two regional outfits – Asom Gana Parishad, and the Bodo People’s Front. Here too the strategist is a former Congressman Himanta Biswa Sarma. The short point to be stressed is that for a national party that is ruling the country, its status in an election round which involved a territory of 116 Lok Sabha seats (almost one-fifth of the total) was that of a minor player with a weak intrinsic core. This after the party has been functioning in the state for decades, and the RSS, its ideological parent, has been laying the ground work for it.

Indeed, 2016 once again demonstrated the real power of the regional parties. The state of Tamil Nadu had rejected the ‘national’ mainstream of the Congress way back in the sixties and continues to traverse that path. Almost 50 years later, West Bengal too has shown that it prefers to stay with the regional outfit Trinamool Congress, rather than fall for a national alliance of the Congress and Left parties. But then the preference for regional parties is not limited to the east or the south, even in the Hindi heartland the Janata Dal (U), Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Samajwadi Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party have been the dominant players in the power game for the last several decades in their respective states.

The BJP did witness its moment of glory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, but then a year later it succumbed to the strategic combination of the JD(U)-RJD and the Congress in Bihar, and now its future performance in the UP Assembly polls scheduled next year would be awaited with baited breath. The political chess board in Uttar Pradesh is in the process of being laid out, but the general consensus is that the main battle would be fought between SP and BSP – the two main regional players.

For a country of India’s size and diversity, regional parties have their own limitations. They can be strong in states, but when it comes to the centre, they usually contribute pretty little. Even when these are a part of ruling alliances at the centre, they tend to be content with sharing the spoils or ensuring that the decisions of the central government are inclined towards the interests of their respective states. The pan-India perspective is usually missing.

It is in this context that the Congress party has a greater role and responsibility. In 2016, the loss in Kerala and Assam is no doubt a setback, but then the outcomes were not unexpected. 

More particularly, in Assam the party had been in power for 15 years, so a change was inevitable and the people opted for the alternative that was available. In so far as Kerala is concerned, there has been a tradition of change in governments every five year, and that was kept alive by the people. So, notwithstanding these two setbacks, the Congress has a historic and national responsibility to fight the ideological battle with the RSS-BJP combine. Whatever the critics might say, it is the only pan-Indian party that can wage this battle, and it is a different matter that it would have to seek the company of other parties in different states depending on the local conditions.

It is also unfair to find fault with the Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s leadership in the context of the setbacks in these elections. The phenomena of the regional parties gaining prominence predates his arrival into politics. Besides, he has shown by example that like his mother, he is not in politics for the sake of acquiring personal power. It is ironic that his not being power hungry is being held against him. In fact we all know that for the last 25 years the much maligned ‘dynasty’ has actually shunned all positions of power and this is not something that can be taken lightly.

Whether it is the TMC in West Bengal or the SP and BSP in Uttar Pradesh their key constituencies are those that have been once a part of the Congress support base and their leaders have all had a stint in the party. This is a matter of consolation as well as reflection. It is a consolation that these states have not gone the BJP/RSS way and it is a matter of reflection as to how the power of regional parties can be harnessed to create a pan-Indian alternative to an ideology that seeks to divide, polarise and communalise the country. This is a collective challenge for the polity. It is to meet this challenge that we need surgical action.

Before I conclude…

It is a matter of pleasure that our Nagpurian Shashank Manohar has been unanimously elected as the first independent chairman of the International Cricket Council. He is now the boss of international cricket on his own and not as a nominee of the BCCI. The fact that he was chosen unanimously signifies the faith the cricketing community has in him as an administrator. He already has an impeccable reputation for fairness and integrity and we can surely expect that his two-year tenure would be an era of pioneering achievements as an international cricket administrator.


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Post-election 2016: The bite of regional parties


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