Opinion | The politics of opportunism in Indian elections

Regional parties prefer to arrive at compromises with national parties on their own terms

The story of India’s past 70 years is now going through a phase of intense trials. There are some who think that we wasted all these years, while others consider this period productive and fruitful. Debate and discussions are the essential elements of democracy but only if they reach some productive results. We Indians are rich in logic but why do we often fail to take the important issues to their logical conclusions?

In fact, we were plagued by this disease right in the initial moments of independence on 15 August 1947. ‘The idea of India’ which was mentioned by Jawaharlal Nehru while giving shape to India’s independence was eclipsed by black fever the moment it came into being. Reason? No matter howsoever sentimental people are about the concept of nationalism in this diverse country, when it comes to voting, they always choose their cultural identity first. Therefore, our elections have become deeply focused on castes, communities, languages, dialects and regions.

Ahead of elections for the 17th Lok Sabha, you will find that all electoral equations are based on these very fundamental elements. Om Prakash Rajbhar of Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, a minister in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Uttar Pradesh, does not have much political base in his own state. He is a leader of a community which has influence in a particular area of eastern UP. He often expresses his disagreement with the policies of the BJP. Yet, he has succeeded in securing government posts and facilities for many of the members of his party prior to elections.

In the same manner, Anupriya Patel of Apna Dal was a Union minister of state in the Modi government. As elections drew near, she started throwing tantrums. As a result, she succeeded in retaining both the Mirzapur and Pratapgarh seats for her party. The BJP also gave Janata Dal (United) and Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) seats according to their wishes and for this, it had to sacrifice its five seats on which the party was sure of victory.

The same story was repeated in Maharashtra. Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray never let go of any opportunity to humiliate the BJP government in the last five years, but he also got the seats he wanted. Of course, BJP has no special affection for Nitish Kumar, Thackeray or Ram Vilas Paswan. The underlying fact is the BJP wants to win as many seats as it can and it does not want to take any risks.

Congress, the main rival of the BJP, made the same efforts but had to work harder. It faced no problems in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra but is now forced to contest alone in Uttar Pradesh, once its stronghold. In Bihar too, Congress had to cope with tantrums of old ally Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Tejashwi Yadav. The Congress wanted to contest 11 seats while Yadav was ready to give eight seats at the most. Besides, he was leaving only those constituencies which, going by social equations, were not going to help the UPA much. Finally, Congress got nine seats there. It’s needless to point out how politically significant Delhi, UP and Bihar are. Out of the total of 543 Lok Sabha seats, these states have 25%, that is 127 seats. Out of them, the BJP and its allies now occupy 111 seats.

Why do national parties prove to be so helpless? The answer is clear. Regional parties and personalities have given so much importance to regional or caste-based aspirations that national parties are compelled to strike a compromise with them. BJP is contesting elections in the name of Narendra Modi while the Congress wants to move ahead under the patronage of the Nehru-Gandhi family. This tendency of electoral politics keeps making the dangers of political blackmailing more dense after every election.

The Congress party, which has had the longest stint in power at the centre under the leaderships of Nehru and Indira, always had the support of regional leaders, including K. Kamaraj, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, S. Nijalingappa, Ajay Kumar Mukherjee, Morarji Desai, Yashwant Rao Chavan, Yashwant Singh Parmar and Devkant Barooah. It is another thing that such personalities faded gradually as the cult of hero worship started growing. Regional leaders of today are the successors of these very leaders but now they prefer to arrive at compromises with the national parties on their own terms instead of remaining under their influence.

No one denies that every region should get representation in a pluralistic country, but when compromises are based on opportunism, they do not prove to be beneficial for democracy. This is the phase which worries. I do not want to see the “idea of democracy" meet the same fate as the “idea of India".

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. His Twitter handle is @shekarkahin