No longer a force?

Electronic Voting Machine, VVPAT at Voters awareness programme in Bengaluru. Photo by S K Dinesh

Regional parties encapsulate the political complexities, social cleavages, regional diversities and political possibilities in Indian politics. 

Regional parties generally take two forms, one as strong regional parties and weak social cleavages, and the other as weak regional parties and strong social cleavages. The Indian experience combines the two.  

Often a distinction is made between a regional party that emphasises its geographically concentrated electoral support base and a regional party that focuses on the ethno-cultural identity and its electoral support base in a region. 

The general sense is that political decentralisation, socio-cultural cleavages and regional disparities along with the local leadership have accounted for the proliferation of regional parties.  

Regional parties tend to compete and draw electoral dividends predominantly from one region of the country like the Basque National party in Spain, the Quebec Party in Canada and the innumerable regional parties in India. 

Over the years in the Indian context, regional parties have lent support or even merged to gain political and electoral advantages at the national level. The perception that regional parties and regional alliances would be the determining factor in the recently concluded elections did not materialise on expected lines.  The national elections saw the interplay of seven national parties and close to three hundred registered regional parties.

Technically it works out to be simple arithmetic. In the 2014 national elections, the two major national parties, the BJP, and the Congress together polled close to 50% of the popular votes.  This implied that a small percentage swing could sway the elections one way or the other.  This is where consolidation of the votes of the mainstream regional parties could make a difference. Based on this arithmetic, some pre-poll alliances took shape prior to the 2019 elections. Many post-poll alliances and possibilities were also on the cards. 

But most of these calculations went haywire for reasons well known since the BJP election tsunami (tsunamo) that bludgeoned most of these calculations. The BJP ended up getting 303 seats up from the 283 secured in 2014. 

The issue is not just one of arithmetic but also political chemistry to ensure the effectiveness of these regional alliances. Hence, questions are now being raised about the future of regional and regionalist parties and regional alliances in the political landscape of India.  

The ability of the BJP to create a politically acceptable narrative as well as strategise its voter mobilisation as no other mainstream national party could do, perhaps made all the difference, along with the Narendra Modi factor. 

The BJP was able to neutralise the electoral strategies of many of the regional political parties especially in the Hindi belt by crafting a common political narrative among the rural poor, youth, women, Dalits, middle class and the urban voters. 

Meanwhile, post-Balakot, the narrative also shifted to national security.  Along with this, the branding of Modi as a strong and capable leader to maintain the country’s unity, integrity and growth mattered too. 

The absence of an alternative leader of such a national stature went to the advantage of the BJP. Opening of close to 330 million bank accounts for the rural poor, also gave the BJP socio-cultural depth and inclusiveness in political terms.  The irony has been that short-term alliances among regional parties were perceived as an existential long-term threat to particular regional parties. Hence, some of the party cadres did not whole-heartedly work for the pre-poll electoral alliance. 

Karnataka is a classic example, where the Congress and JD(S) grassroots workers tended to work at cross-purposes. Many Congressmen had their own misgivings about an alliance with AAP in Delhi, a party that had dethroned them from power.   There were many pulls and pressures within the Samajwadi Party too as much as the BSP.  The Congress-Left Front crashed before it could even take-off in West Bengal where Mamatha Banerjee’s brand equity tended to erode in the midst of the Modi brand equity.

Regional parties have transformed the very nature of electoral politics. However, the perception that regional parties would evolve into national players in their own right, have not truly materialised. 

Such an attempt, for example, by the BSP in the 2009 general elections failed with the party getting only 23 seats, and all of them in Uttar Pradesh. The extent to which regional parties exercise continued dominance over a region and help transform modes of governance is a matter of discussion and debate.  

Undoubtedly, they have introduced the element of competitive federalism in the country. The threat to the regional parties emanate from the very basis on which they are constituted and function. Their sustenance on social cleavages and individual leaders has turned out to be both advantageous and disadvantageous depending on the context and time frame. 

Dynastic politics

Dynastic politics also seem to be taking its toll.  The regional parties are no longer the juggernauts they used to be or were made out to be. The recent elections have dented the image and role of regional parties as the power brokers in politics.  The BJP focused on nationalism and patriotism in contrast to the regional nationalism/sub-nationalism of the regional parties. This tended to work in the favour of BJP. 

The regional alliances were meant to ensure more two-cornered contests to take on the BJP but it failed to materialise on the ground. Many of the regional parties have moved from the margins to the centre and are now back to the margins. 

In southern India, the regional parties seem to have held their ground, though their future relevance seems shaky. The political narratives, strategies and policies initiated by the BJP seem to call into question the logic and rationale for the continued existence of the regional parties.  Their space and influence seems to be shrinking. 

It is time for regional parties and their leaders to introspect on what went wrong in the recent elections, and what needs to be done to revive their political and electoral fortunes. 

(The writer is Professor and Dean (Faculty of Arts), Bangalore University, Bengaluru)

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