Winston Churchill’s rather dim view of India has been systemically discredited over time, but his statement that “India is just a geographical term with no more a political personality than Europe” seems surprisingly relevant today. Never before has India’s political scenario been as varied, with voters in a majority of the country’s 28 states opting for a dominant regional party at the expense of national parties.
Last Friday’s election results from Uttar Pradesh further reinforced that trend. The headlines read that the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) wrests control of India’s most populous state from another regional outfit, the Samajwadi Party (SP). But equally significant is that the two main national parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress party, finished a distant third and fourth, respectively. The decline in their vote share, in fact, facilitated the emphatic win for BSP.
There’s an old saying in Indian politics that all roads to New Delhi cut through UP, signifying the importance of a state that has historically provided political leadership for the country. UP makes up more than 15% of India’s population. And the message from there is that the two main national parties continue to drift further away from voters’ mindspace.
The poll results were particularly disappointing for BJP. The party’s meteoric rise began in the state during the late 1980s on the back of a nationalist ‘Hindutva’ wave. India then went through a phase where it was prone to communalist passions. Such emotional fervour ebbs and flows with time. BJP has, however, been unable to come to grips with the fact that the populace has moved on to worry about development and empowerment.
In this year’s UP elections, BJP ran a campaign high on communal zeal, in which the party’s young leaders often engaged in good old Muslim bashing. At a rally I attended in the state last month, a local BJP leader blasted Muslims for “feasting on cows”. He said they should rather eat “dogs, cats and mice.” He berated them for turning the country into “another Pakistan.” The response of what should have been a partisan crowd was remarkably muted.
Meanwhile, the Congress continues to be disintermediated by regional parties. In a striking turn of events, BSP, led by Mayawati, topped up its traditionally solid lower-caste vote bank by reaching out to the Brahmins and other upper castes. She swept to power by creating a caste rainbow of the kind the Congress used to formulate in its heyday. It’s a sign of social progress that a leader of the Dalits was able to assimilate the upper castes. When the Congress last engaged in such social engineering in the 1960s and 1970s, the upper castes called all the shots. Mayawati’s rise over the past two decades is in large part a reaction to that oppressive rule. Her defining slogan in the 1990s was: “Brahmins, Banias and Rajputs, all upper castes, need to be beaten with shoes.”
But realizing she needed a wider base to come to power without relying on any national party for support, Mayawati started to tone down such tirades. She took a softer approach in her bid to project equality with the other castes. The new Mayawati wasn’t afraid to run a fiercely negative campaign against her main rival, Mulayam Singh Yadav, the leader of SP. Given UP’s terrible track record in law and order, Mayawati’s tough line on crime resonated with the electorate across caste lines. Even the Brahmins—who have long felt squeezed by caste-based affirmative action, which has favoured the chunky middle part of the spectrum—were prepared to piggyback on Mayawati to regain power.
While Mayawati was working on a new social equation, the Congress was busy rolling out another scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. For all their enduring charisma, the Gandhi family’s hold on Indian politics has been weakening since the mid-1980s. Its role is now mainly to act as a centripetal force for the various strands of the Congress party strewn across the country. But these strands have been withering and attempts at weaving them back together have come a cropper much too often as there’s little to bind them other than the appeal of the Gandhi family.
The past elections have shown that the people want their politicians to fulfil their immediate needs, from regular electricity to a sense of identity for the backward castes, rather than indulge in rhapsodical rhetoric. Regional parties are more in sync with local sentiment. But none of these local organizations has been able to significantly transcend the borders of their home state. This has somewhat slowed the decline of India’s national parties.
The pattern of greater regionalization in politics seems to have had no bearing on other socioeconomic trends. The economic boom is spreading while secessionist tensions have rarely been lower. The notion of India as an economic superpower has increasingly captured the imagination of global investors despite the lack of much incremental economic reform efforts at the Centre. Maybe the robust global expansion is helping India get away with such inaction, or perhaps the need for policy reforms is less important in this era of globalization, when the economy is well integrated with the world.
Whatever the outcome of the move towards regionalization of India’s polity, the UP election results further demonstrate that at the political level, India is increasingly looking like a commonwealth of nations with distinct state identities and fading national parties.
Wall Street Journal
Ruchir Sharma is head of emerging markets at Morgan Stanley Investment Management. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org