National Parties on Backstage

It’s dangerous if national parties are agreeing to play second fiddle to regional satraps

By Anil Anand

How does one describe the continuous ascendancy of regional political parties or the increasing dependency of national players on the former for political survival? The two questions combined into one do seem to be dichotomous in nature but also reflect the crisis which the Indian polity is continuously undergoing since 1990 and has become more intense despite BJP winning 2014-Lok Sabha elections on its own.

In the normal course the growth of regional political parties should fall under the pattern of participatory federalism which could be construed as a healthy augury for Indian democracy. The growth of regional parties and leaders is also indicative of the fact that Indian voters are becoming more region-centric for resolution of their multifarious concerns while showing disgust towards national political parties. This tendency has both negative and positive fall-outs.

Disgust towards national political parties for not coming up to their expectations, yes it is true to a great extent. But has the growth of regional players really strengthened the concept of participatory federalism? There are serious doubts which emanate from the manner in which the emerging regional satraps have been conducting themselves vis-a-vis the national players as the formers’ approach the issues with a sense of total self-aggrandisement rather than benefitting the system through their new found political strength.

Two very recent developments where premier national political parties looked so hapless that they willingly got dictated by regional outfits in the Assembly and civic elections should send alarm waves across not only the political spectrum but the country as a whole. It was  BJP, the largest political party in the world with estimated 11 crore members, played a poor second fiddle to Punjab-centric  Shiromani Akali Dal in the just held Assembly elections, and was forced by Shiv Sena in Maharashtra to break ranks and contest the Mumbai Corporation elections separately after remaining in alliance for nearly three decades.

The case of the other mainly political party Indian National Congress was even worst. Despite initial bravado and its vice president Rahul Gandhi’s effort to rejuvenate the party on its own before Assembly polls, the party was forced to enter into an alliance with UP-centric Samajwadi Party. Imagine this has happened in a politically significant state which for decades was ruled solely by the Congress.

These developments are a continuation of the phenomenon witnessed during early stint of Assembly elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu where both the national political parties faced rejection. The story was slightly different in Assam where BJP-led alliance, and Puducherry where Congress-led alliance won elections clearly reflecting on the national political parties dependence factor even in smaller states as well.

But Punjab, Mahrashtra and UP developments are more worrying when viewed in the national context. In these cases the national political parties, as it is, have started on a very weak note by playing second fiddle to comparatively smaller regional players giving the latter a strong psychological edge. There is no guarantee, going by the past track-record of the regional leaders, that they would use this strength positively and collectively in the national and their respective regional interests.

Even a victory for Congress-Samajwadi combine in UP and BJP-SAD alliance in Punjab would not lessen the potential danger of national polity being slighted by regional aspirations unless the allies agree to strike a perfect balance between the two. A loss in the two states would certainly bring more catastrophes for national political parties.

As it is, the base of what Election Commission of India describes as the national political parties is shrinking. It could be gauged from the fact that among the six such parties only two, Congress and BJP have pan-India presence. The other four national parties have been pushed to the status of state parties due to their poor electoral performance over the years. These are CPI, CPI (M), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

The very thought of national parties with pan-India presence ready to play a second fiddle to single-state centric regional parties is dreadful. Since these regional parties are becoming instrumental in helping the national parties win Lok Sabha seats in collaboration and, of course, the former play a dominant role in Assembly elections, there are little signs of ease for the parties such as Congress and BJP in near future. At least this would be true of Congress for a long time to come.

It is rather ironic that under such circumstances where regional parties are playing a dominant role, from Jammu and Kashmir to Tamil Nadu, even in national affairs, these outfits have not shown any commitment in terms of responsibility or recognising their national role while being a regional player. Their focus so far has only been on extracting their pound of flesh which is either a particular state-centric or related to a state/regional leader’s own aspirations.

Definitely it is the abject failure of the national level political parties to deliver when it is needed most that has encouraged growth of regional parties. The former’s delivery has been poor both at the political and governance levels. Politically speaking a strong national political party like Congress  ceded its ground because its national leadership stopped the process of developing state level or regional leaders. Those aspiring to do so but not finding favour with the high command are increasingly taking the route of either joining regional parties are setting up new ones. This is the story of Mufti Mohammed Sayyed (PDP) in J&K, Mamta Banerjee (TMC) in West Bengal, initially Sharad Pawar (NCP) in Mahrashtra and many others.