Bengaluru/Kolkata/New Delhi: Thursday’s election verdict that saw two regional parties beat anti-incumbency and return to power has underlined the power of such groups in the Indian polity.
In West Bengal, the regional Trinamool Congress (TMC) led by chief minister Mamata Banerjee won 211 of the 294 seats it contested, according to data available on the Election Commission website.
And in Tamil Nadu, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), led by chief ministerJ. Jayalalithaa, won the state assembly polls with 134 seats in the 234-member state assembly.
The victories came despite corruption allegations against members of both parties.
In the case of the TMC, a federal probe is underway against three of its members in the Saradha chit fund scam in which thousands of small investors lost their money.
Jayalalithaa was convicted in 2014 on charges of possessing assets disproportionate to her income, disqualified from holding office and sent to jail, before being acquitted by the Karnataka high court and restored to office last year.
With Thursday’s wins, the two parties have joined the ranks of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Orissa and the Grand Alliance in Bihar—an amalgam of at least three political groups: chief minister Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress. The AAP, BJD, JD (U) and RJD are all regional parties but wield considerable power in their own ways.
According to analyst N. Bhaskara Rao, “these groups have been gaining momentum and continue to gain momentum due to the policies of successive governments in New Delhi and also because of the decline of the Congress.
“The rise of regional parties has occurred because people feel their regional aspirations have not been met by the national parties,” he said adding that the origins of such groups can be traced back to the 1960s.
The decline of the Congress has been particularly marked in recent years. The party was reduced to 44 members in the 545-member Lok Sabha in the 2014 elections that saw the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) come to power nationally with a majority of its own. “The more the Congress shrinks, the greater the room for the BJP and regional parties to expand,” Rao said.
One of the oldest regional parties that came into existence in 1969 was the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), now the principal opposition in Tamil Nadu.
Both the AIADMK and DMK have been keeping their hold on power—and national parties like the Congress and the BJP at bay —by mirroring and highlighting local sentiments and aspirations as well as showering voters with freebies.
Sample this: ahead of the 16 May assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, the DMK promised free Internet for students, 20 kg of free rice per month, cellphones at subsidized rates and 750 units of free power for power loom owners. The AIADMK on its part promised to give free laptops with Internet for senior school students, one sovereign of gold for women ahead of marriages, to install Wi-Fi in big bus stands, to offer 100 free units of power every two months and free mobile phones to all ration card holders.
In the case of West Bengal too, giveaways clicked with the people, said Biswanath Chakraborty, professor of political science at Kolkata’s Rabindra Bharati University.
“The landslide victory of Trinamool Congress in the assembly election can be attributed to schemes like Kanyashree Prakalpa (annual scholarship schemes for education), providing rice and wheat for Rs.2 per kg, etc,” he said.
Though representative of regional aspirations at the local and national level, regional parties are seen as a boon at times and a curse at others.
Banerjee’s reluctance to give her go-ahead to a pact on the sharing of waters of Teesta river with Bangladesh has resulted in an agreement hanging fire since 2011.
However, Banerjee’s assent helped India conclude a landmark land boundary agreement with Bangladesh last year during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Dhaka in June.
In the case of important legislation like the Goods and Services Tax (GST) bill, Banerjee has said her party would support the proposed law—albeit with some riders.
“We have promised to support GST, after there is compensation for the state. If it happens, we will then support it. We are positive on this,” Banerjee told reporters in Kolkata shortly after the poll results were announced.
But sounding a note of warning, Banerjee said: “But we cannot support (BJP) in all issues. With the BJP, there are some ideological issues where our stands are different. In that we cannot lend support. But if it is for the benefit of common people, if that is something positive, we will not be negative on this.”
According to Bhaskara Rao, regional parties sometime behave as an effective opposition when parties like the BJP and the Congress are diminished. “In sum, regional parties are here to stay, they are more likely to strengthen given that the Congress is seemingly on decline and the BJP, which is not seen as acceptable to all regions, is trying to make more room for itself in the country,” Rao said.