Regional parties need to modify their agenda

Among many other features of democracy in India is the growing federalisation with the rise of regional parties. Regional parties, which sprang into prominence in India after the collapse of the Congress rule in 1967, began to represent regional diversity in terms of economic needs and cultural aspirations. 

They were also the representative political forces of regional bourgeoisie that began to take shape from agrarian surplus after the Green Revolution, as against the national and global capital flows. 

They have steadily played a bigger role in national politics though they repeatedly failed to provide stable governments at the Centre, whenever they attempted to form a ‘Third Front’. The failure to form stable alliances is representative of the federal structure with unitary features, where the regional parties seem to be able to come together in a stable coalition only while rallying around national parties, either Congress or the BJP. 

The question this time around is, will the general elections 2014 be any different? Will regional parties such as the BJD, RJD, TMC, SP, BSP, AIADMK, and TDP, manage a Third Front? Or would they prefer to join one of the coalitions led by a national party? One of the reasons for repeated failures of forging and managing the Third Front has been the failure of regional parties to think and present an agenda at the national level, and also the failure to strike an alternative social and economic programme that is different from the national parties. 

Reforms by stealth

This process has become all the more difficult with a near-consensus on economic reforms and carrying out ‘reforms by stealth’, at the national as well as regional levels. This is not to say that there are no competing or conflicting interests that these parties represent but just that they have preferred simply not to represent their constituencies.
 Perhaps, one of the initial trends in contrast to this near-consensus model has been the recent protest by various regional parties with regard to the issue of FDI in retail sector. Most of the regional parties, including the SP, TMC and BSP spoke a different language of protecting the ‘small traders’ in their states against the giant incursions by multinational brands such as the Walmart. 

Similarly, regional parties need to represent agriculture. Many states such as Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh etc are facing acute agrarian crisis, which has resulted in farmers’ suicides. However, in the changing dynamics, the regional parties began to play a different tune of allowing corporate agriculture, with the introduction of Monsanto seeds, expensive fertilizers, cash crops, crop insurance, and other such market-oriented moves in order to facilitate the transfer of agricultural sector from the local to the global.

In Andhra Pradesh, for instance, Y S Rajsekhar Reddy came to power in 2004 and again in2009 with a series of welfare measures for the farmers and other marginalised sections of the rural hinterlands, which included free electricity, free transportation for the farmers to sell their produce, Arogyashree health scheme for the rural poor, housing, among others. It is a paradox that a regional party like the TDP began to represent global capital and adopted the economic model presented by the World Bank, while a national party like the Congress came back with an agrarian agenda.

This interchange of their historic roles is the result of a super-imposed economic model of growth. It was again Congress that pressed for the recent Land acquisition Bill (2012), invoking the role of panchayats in acquiring land for the purpose of industry, while parties such as the CPI (M) lost power in West Bengal for its forceful acquisition of land, although they had represented the interests of the peasants for the last three decades, including carrying out land reforms in the 1960s. This is again symptomatic of the role-reversal- from land reforms to land acquisition.

Quality education

Along with agriculture, regional parties also need to take up education as their second most important agenda. Mostly, when agriculture does well, the demand for good education goes up. Providing quality schooling will propel inter-generational mobility and also partially address the inequalities across caste, class, gender and the rural-urban divide. Regional parties could take up the issue of ‘common neighbourhood schooling system’ like in the US.

Under this system, the government should ensure near-similar quality schooling across the state and make it mandatory that all those residing in a particular geographical limit need to go to the same school. The recent Right to Education Act has provided 25 per cent preferential admission in corporate schools to children coming from economically weak backgrounds.

Health is another pressing need in many parts of India. The recent debate on compulsory one-year posting for government junior doctors is a right move in that direction. The discourse of ‘youth’ in India has been centred on an urban imagination, and the debate around ‘demographic dividend’ also has urban youth aspiring global opportunities, which has however missed out on rural youth. It is part of this discourse that junior doctors recently protested against mandatory rural-postings.

However, it would be pertinent to push a system of mandatory rural posting for many other professions, including teachers, engineers, and lawyers, among others. Wider role for regional parties is by definition healthy for democracy, provided these parties represent the diversity they belong to rather than follow-suit the national and global models of development.

(The writer is assistant professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

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