National vs Regional

Lok Sabha Polls

A kite-maker prepares kites with election symbols of political parties at his shop ahead of the general election, in Kolkata. REUTERS

The political challenge for the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress in the forthcoming elections arises from the regional parties. The regional parties hold power in 12 states across the country, the BJP rules on its own only in nine states and in alliance with regional parties in three states. The Congress rules on its own in four states and in alliance with a regional party in one state. Therefore, these two political parties are dependent on alliances with regional parties to ensure positive electoral outcomes for themselves. 

For instance, this Lok Sabha election, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh will witness a struggle for power between the two national parties and their regional rivals, namely the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal. The origin and growth of regional parties arises from the several ethnic, cultural, linguistic, religious and caste groups within Indian society. These regional parties operate within limited areas and pursue only limited objectives. They represent regional aspirations and identities which have grown in numbers and strength and played significant roles both in the state as well as national politics.

Tamil Nadu is politically unique, with only regional parties holding power, to the exclusion of the national parties, since 1969. Regionalism in an earlier era was viewed as a negation of nationalism or nation-building but now provides a new dimension to the process of national integration. To that extent, regional parties strengthen national unity and integrity, along with their respective regional interests. They also focus the attention of people in remote areas on various political and economic issues to thereby contribute to political awakening. After the emergence of the regional parties and coalition politics, since 1991 Centre-State relations have been irritant-ridden. Regional parties have broken the stranglehold of the national parties and thereby ushered in a semblance of competitive federalism.

Over the last 30 years, people across the country have never voted with a common agenda. Invariably, regional factors tend to complicate the national narrative. States have social, political or economic issues which are endemic in character and therefore make it almost impossible to come to a consensus on common considerations on a pan-India basis. This is evident from the fact that Karnataka votes differently in assembly and parliamentary elections, even when it happens within the span of a year.

In the 2014 elections, West Bengal, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Odisha remained largely unaffected by the ‘Modi wave’ that swept large parts of the country. In Odisha, it may well be a referendum on the Naveen Patnaik government rather than the national narrative that could seal the results of the 2019 general elections. The regional parties, especially their leaders, are well-entrenched as they seek to play the ‘victim’ card at the national level. Voters when confronted with a choice between a regional party and a national party, usually prefer the former as evident from the electoral outcome in West Bengal in the 2014 elections. 

Take the 2016 US elections, when Trump was elected President of the United States owing to a national narrative. He was able to capture the national imagination over “Make America Great Again,” thereby eclipsing local and regional issues. Perhaps, the focus on local issues could have derailed Trump’s electoral victory. 

Today, the BJP is desperately trying to once again unleash the rhetoric of nationalism in the form of the national security imperative. Nationalism is a time-tested strategy that has propelled many leaders and political parties to power. The good old TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor is bandied about as a last-ditch effort to neutralise the threat from the ever-growing and powerful regional parties. For instance, the four border-states — Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat — which share contiguous borders with Pakistan, besides those that form part of the cow-belt or the Hindi heartland, are most swayed by the recent Indian airstrike on Balakot. On the other hand, the southern states and eastern ones are least affected, as local issues of livelihood and survival take precedence over nationalistic rhetoric.

To therefore perceive India as a homogenous socio-political entity only distorts the prediction of voting trends. Broad generalisations about these complexities, purely to predict electoral victories or defeats, are meaningless exercises. Apart from the cultural boundaries that historically divide the people of the land on either side of the Vindhyas, now a nationalist and regionalist divide has emerged across the country.

Voting pattern

Complexity characterises the manner in which citizens will begin to vote in a week from now, considering the diversity that constitutes the country. In every election, attempts at national assessments blur state-specific characteristics, which are unique to India. In the process, the native wisdom is not exercised to gauge the local mood. Moreover, the diversity of culture is evident from the difference in customs, dialects, ethnicities, foods, languages, rituals and traditions that manifest in multiple mindsets among prospective voters. Even in a general election, which is supposedly a national event, the country votes state-wise.

Speculations abound over the political outcome of the 2019 general election, which may or may not prove accurate. But this election will be keenly fought between the two main national parties, who have forged alliances with regional parties. Last minute party-hopping could also impact results in a few critical constituencies. Finally, the political arithmetic that the party bosses in state capitals have put together has to translate into chemistry on the ground. While “scientific” predictions and half-baked assessments could prove inaccurate, the truth will be revealed on judgement day, May 23.

(The writer is Associate Professor, Department of Media Studies, Christ Deemed to be University, Bengaluru)   

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