(The writer can be reached at [email protected])
The political narrative in India in the recent years is heavily soaked in favour of national parties, with BJP appearing, by far, as the most dominant National Political Party at present. At least, this is what is made out to be in the national media : in TV channels, print media, etc. However, a closer look at the States ( full fledged states, and excluding Delhi) gives quite an interesting picture. There are 29 States in India, with Jammu and Kashmir, presently, under President’s rule. Of these, 11 States have Chief Ministers belonging to Regional Parties, including Nitish Kumar of JD(U) in Bihar, and H D Kumaraswamy of JD(S) in Karnataka. 12 States have BJP Chief Ministers, while 4 belong to Congress, and 1, in Kerala, belong to the CPI(M). Many suggest that even the left coalitions have become Regional players. The States with Chief Ministers from Regional parties, currently, contribute 283 Lok Sabha members, and this is more than half of the total Lok Sabha seats. Of the remaining 18 States, where there is no CM from Regional parties, there are 9 States where regional parties, major or minor, continue to play important and crucial role. Also, out of 12 States where BJP has its Chief Minister, in 4 States, it cannot be in Government, without the support of its regional partners.
When NDA was formed in 1998, there were only 13 parties in it. However, by shrewd manipulations and excellent politicking, this number in NDA swelled to above 40 till some time back. Of course, this number has now come down, of late, with a few NDA partners leaving the alliance.
The UPA had over 20 coalition partners, much lower than that of NDA. But, in either formations, the regional parties are contributing to the critical mass. In Assam itself, the AGP and BPF were in the ruling coalition, with 14 and 12 MLAs respectively, in a house of 126. The AGP, of course, has pulled out of the coalition recently, having had differences with BJP, its senior partner, over Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016.
In 2004, the Congress managed to capture power at the Centre by carefully crafting smart coalitions with multiple parties across the Country, and thus, defeating the incumbent NDA Government, led by the immensely popular Atal Bihari Vajpayee. This particular NDA government had the likes of Omar Abdullah of National Conference of Jammu and Kashmir, Mamata Banerjee of Trinmool Congress (TMC), Naveen Pattanaik of Biju Janata Dal (BJD) of Odisha, etc, which is quite contrast to the present scenario, with Mamata Banerjee, and Omar Abdullah being vocal critic of the present BJP, and its politics.
India had the first coalition Government at the Centre in 1977, a good thirty years after independence. In this coalition, though not acknowledged, regional leaders played pivots in the Janata Party government. The late 1980s and mid 1990s saw prominence of regional and smaller parties having sway over government formation at the Centre. It was NDA government first, in late 1990s, and then UPA government next, that had national parties, BJP and Congress respectively, as the prominent partners in the alliances at the Centre. The current NDA government at the Centre has BJP as the lead partner, with a majority in the lower house of the Parliament. However, quite a slice of the ministries are with the regional parties.
Regional Parties were formed, primarily, to protect and promote local and regional aspirations and regional interests. Many regional parties were formed by breaking away from national parties; K Chandrasekhar Rao’s Telengana Rastriya Samithi (TRS) from the Congress, Samajwadi Party (SP) breaking away from Janata Dal are such examples. Then there are national parties whose influence now is reduced to being regional players. Bahujan Samaj Party is an example whose prominence is now concentrated in Uttar Pradesh, though some years back it had major influence in States like Punjab, Rajasthan, etc. We also have examples of some regional parties trying to go national, like that of Trinmool Congress, Aam Admi Party, etc, specially during 2014 Lok Sabha polls. One remembers N T Rama Rao, the founder of Telegu Dasam Party (TDP), having considerable influence in national politics in 1980s.
The presence of regional parties espousing interests of identity, and regional concerns is quite palpable in almost all the States of the North Eastern part of the Country, including Sikkim. Tripura politics was dominated earlier by left parties and the Congress, and presently by the BJP. Of late, regional parties have started making their presence felt in the State.
National parties like BJP and the Indian National Congress have also evolved as far as regional and sub-regional aspirations are concerned, and are more receptive to such issues. Specially since 2000s, national parties have included regional and sub-regional agenda, in their politicking, which was hardly the case earlier. There are many welfare schemes promised and successfully implemented by regional parties, prominently in States in South India, that were adopted by National parties and the Governments at the Centre. Midday meal scheme is one such predominant example, which was started in Tamilnadu, by M G Ramachandran, the founder of All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). These are stamps of leverage of the regional leaders and regional parties in national politics.
As of now, the regional politics and aspirations have considerable impact over national polity. In the run up to 2004 Parliamentary elections, BJP very successfully could co-opt small and lesser known parties, and piggyback on them to expand its ascendancy in many states, where it had very limited stature. Assam is a good example, where it leapfrogged to capture 61 assembly seats, compared to marginal increase in the tally of AGP in 2016 assembly elections. The NDA, in its present form, is having considerable issues among its own alliance partners, and mainly pertaining to certain non-national issues. How these play out in the days to come remains to be seen. The Congress, on the other hand, is trying to cobble together alliances, mainly with the help of regional parties. What is clear is that regional parties would continue to be prominent components in national polity, either on their own or in alliance with national parties or with their regional counterparts. So long it is not purely chauvinistic, the importance and contribution of regional parties in Indian democracy should be recognized and is most welcome.