Hyderabad: As the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was about to take office, it was reported that the Janata Dal (United), [JD(U)], a long-standing ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) declined to join the government despite the alliance sweeping its home state, Bihar. The JD(U) probably read the tea leaves well and quickly realized two things. One, it was unlikely to have its way and second, it would not be prudent to antagonize the coalition-maker. This JD(U) story, in many ways, is the story of regional or state-based parties. From the margins to the centre and now back to the receiving end, the wheel has turned a full circle for the so-called regional parties.

If the JD(U) should feel sidelined almost immediately after an emphatic triumph, what does the future hold for other members of the regional party family under the hegemony of India’s new predominant party, the BJP? The BJP’s stated goal of a “Congress Mukt Bharat" is work in progress and the results are there for all to see. This goal as Suhas Palshikar, one of contemporary India’s sharpest political observers, has persistently underlined is not merely one of increasing its electoral dominance, but is, more importantly, a battle of ideas. The BJP’s end goal is to discredit the Congress’ secular-pluralist nationalist project and bring its majoritarian nationalist project to the centre.

To take the project to fruition, it follows that the regional and single-state parties are logically the next target. Though the 2019 results show that regional parties appear to have held their ground (particularly in southern states), the numbers hide more than they reveal. It does not tell us about their shrinking space, voice, and influence, but more importantly, also hides the immense pressure these parties are under to remain relevant. What then are the implications of the ascendance and dominance of the BJP for regional parties, federalism in particular, and Indian politics in general?

The coalition-era

Looking back, it now appears that the period between 1996 and 2014 was the high watermark for state-based parties. At the height of their influence, they even led two federal governments. Though limited to specific territories, they were federally competitive since the polity-wide parties were constrained by their geographic weaknesses and social deficits. Consequently, many regional parties who were once alienated moved to the centre (Tamil Nadu, for example) and were critical to both the formation and survival of all national-level governments. In this period, state-based parties held key ministerial portfolios in federal coalition governments, and had a greater say in national level decision making. From a position where they called the shots, today, it appears they are back to almost where they began.

Empirical evidence suggests that the power and influence of regional parties are inversely proportional to the strength of the polity-wide parties. Between 1996 and 2014, neither the BJP nor the Congress was in a position to form a government on their own and this put state-based parties in the driver’s seat. However, we should not ignore the fact that it is the single-state parties who have the highest stakes in the coalitional system. The polity-wide parties prefer to govern alone and are in the coalitional game only because of the deficits mentioned above. Polity-wide parties will, therefore, constantly attempt to reduce their dependence on state-based parties by pushing to cover more territory as well as increase their social outreach. For single-state parties who want to have a say at the centre—given the limited seats they contest—coalitions are the only game in town. Consequently, state-based parties across the board are united to keep polity-wide parties tied down and dependent on them to ensure power-sharing.

Towards the latter half of 2018, a set of regional political parties from different parts of the country attempted to recreate the magic that would push them to the centre-stage and recover the space ceded to the BJP. Five leaders, K. Chandrashekar Rao (Telangana Rashtra Samithi) from Telangana, Chandrababu Naidu (Telugu Desam Party) from Andhra Pradesh, Mamata Banerjee (All India Trinamool Congress) from West Bengal and both Mayawati (Bahujan Samaj Party) and Akhilesh Yadav (Samajwadi Party) from Uttar Pradesh were at the forefront of these efforts. At times, they appeared to work together. At times, separately. And sometimes, even against each other to both, push the cause of state-based parties as well as to position themselves as key players at the centre in the event of the polity-wide parties falling short of a majority.

With a potential 17 Lok Sabha seats, Rao was the most ambitious of them all and also first off the blocks. He has been in politics long enough to know how the winds blow and called for early assembly elections in 2018 instead of waiting for May 2019. When state and national elections are held together, comparative studies show that it is the national stage that sets the agenda and the focus will be on the central government and its leadership. Consequently, state units of polity-wide parties have an edge during simultaneous elections as they could leverage their central government potential. With the advantage of hindsight, it now appears that it was a smart political manoeuvre and Rao cut his losses since the BJP won four seats to the Lok Sabha. The separation of the elections ensured that the focus was on state-level issues, his party, and his leadership. The TRS decimated the opposition in the assembly elections, and this further vetted Rao’s ambitions. Immediately after the elections, Rao travelled to states ruled by state-based parties championing the cause of a federal front that would be autonomous of both the BJP and the Congress. He also made the right noises on centre-state relations to strike a chord within the regional party, family calling for greater decentralization and doing away with the concurrent list.

Similarly, Chandrababu Naidu hit the ground running once the TDP checked out of the NDA. As in the mid-90s, he sought to become the pivot around which the regional and opposition parties could unite. To achieve this unity and give the proposed grouping additional leverage, the TDP did the unthinkable. It made peace with the Congress and joined hands with the latter for the Telangana elections. Naidu, like Rao, travelled to the same set of states pushing for a united opposition against the BJP. Naidu’s rainbow coalition included parties opposed to each other but were united against the BJP.

While all this was happening, the BSP and the SP decided to come together in Uttar Pradesh, putting aside two decades of personal bitterness and confrontation. The mahagathbandan, as it was called, included Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal. The alliance assumed that caste arithmetic and vote-pooling would bring them better results than 2014.

Meanwhile, on the eastern front, Mamata Banerjee happened to be the go-to player for all the leaders who aspired for a dominant role at the centre. She had the reputation of a fighter who worked under tremendous pressure and it was not surprising that they looked to her to deliver. She enhanced her reputation among the state-based parties by bringing together more than 20 parties opposed to the BJP under what was called the “United India" rally in Kolkata. With 42 seats in the Lok Sabha, West Bengal was a critical state in the calculations of the state-based parties, especially since the BJP was traditionally a weak player in the state.

Rude shock of results

The 2019 results must have shocked the regional parties and extinguished any dream of their leaders being influential actors at the centre. The BJP juggernaut rolled over everything that came in front of it. From the mid-1990s till about five years ago, state politics exhibited an autonomy of its own and national elections prominently reflected state-level differences. Voters responded to and prioritized state-level issues, and consequently, national elections displayed a greater variation and heterogeneity across states. This is reflected in the increased numbers of political parties being represented in the Lok Sabha.

Comparing the era of Congress dominance and the coalition-era, Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar pithily stated that, earlier, people voted in state elections as if they were choosing a prime minister. Now, people voted in national elections (since the mid-1990s) as if they are choosing a chief minister. The 2014 and 2019 polls seem to have reversed this trend and brought wave elections back.

While Modi’s leadership was a key factor in the success of the party, one cannot ignore how the BJP appears to have overcome the challenge posed by regional parties. The regional party family consists of two types of parties: the first type is regionally-located, and the others are the regionalist parties. The regionally-located parties do not necessarily have any regional or state-specific agenda. They are regional only because they compete and win only in limited territories. These include parties like the BSP, SP, Rashtriya Janata Dal, JD(U), among others.

Regionalist parties, however, have a clear and identifiable programmatic vision or plan for the territories they contest. Regionalist parties usually make a mix of three claims: One, the so-called national parties are incapable of addressing the specific concerns of the state; two, state honour, pride, culture and language among other issues should be protected; and three, the centre should cede more powers to the states. The TDP, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Shiv Sena, Shiromani Akali Dal and the National Conference are among the prominent regionalist parties.

The regionally-located parties represent both the success and failure of the great democratic upsurge of backward and lower castes in north India since the late 1980s. Competition soon led to the break-up of the big overarching groups into smaller single-caste groups. The BJP has been successful in exploiting the fault lines of this upsurge and attracting the support of groups that feel marginalized.

In one of the earliest studies on the BJP’s expansion, Oliver Heath in the Economic and Political Weekly noted that the BJP redefines and appeals to different sections of society as it moves to new territories. This has allowed the party to expand its social base beyond the traditional upper-class. In both Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the party opened itself or had alliances with non-dominant lower-caste groups that had begun to feel left out. This ‘social engineering strategy’ combined with its organizational reach short-circuited the plans of caste-based regionally-located parties in the so-called Hindi heartland.

The speed at which the UP mahagathbandan unravelled after the polls underlines two points. One, crafting an alliance is the easier half of the story; working, maintaining, and living the true-spirit of the coming-together is the more difficult part. Second, Lokniti National Election Studies surveys have consistently pointed to the fact that both the SP and the BSP have become one-caste dominated parties with the non-Yadav OBCs and the non-Jatav Dalit castes looking towards the BJP.

The nationalist project

Polity-wide parties emphasize commonalities to play aggregator, while regionalist parties stress upon differences and question the position of their state within the larger union. The BJP has succeeded in the regionalist space, as in Assam and Jammu, where it is able to convert the battle into a nationalist project. However, in other regionalist spaces, party competition revolves around various degrees of regionalism and a nationalist position will not sell. This puts the BJP in a fix. On the one hand, it cannot propose an alternate line or critique the regionalist position. On the other hand, it cannot endorse the regionalist line without endangering its cohesiveness as well as credibility as a polity-wide party. Though the TMC and the BJD are regionalist in character, they do not play this card, and this has helped the BJP to get its foot in the door. Mamata Banerjee’s attempts to build an all-India appeal and appear as the primary challenger to Narendra Modi made her spread herself thin and this created a slippery slope that played into the hands of the BJP.

In many ways, the period between 1996 and 2014 fulfilled the main demands that state-based parties had been articulating since the late 1960s and potentially created space for the inauguration of a new phase of federalism. In this phase, raising state-specific issues was no longer taboo or ‘anti-national’ and it added a new dimension to national-level decision making. Also, as the power base of the supporting parties lay in the states and not in the parliamentary party, the centre could no longer run down the states. Second, the centre no longer saw states as secondary but as associates. Finally, this period also saw reduced central intervention with a decline in the use of Art. 356.

Dominance is, however, not a natural or permanent property of political parties. As the BJP’s ascendance demonstrates, it is constructed and can therefore also unravel over a period of time. However, for regional parties, playing the waiting game might not be the best strategy. What happens if voters start responding to the nationalist agenda? The answer to the direction politics in India may take depends on how state-based parties respond to this challenge.

K.K. Kailash is with the department of political science at University of Hyderabad.

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