How BJP's rise is changing the entire contours of regional politics
The rise of the BJP with a majority of its own in the centre will change the nature of regional politics. Most reginoal parties are caste-based and run by families, just like the Congress.
The victory of the BJP in the Lok Sabha polls is likely to pose a major challenge to the Congress way of dealing with regional parties. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Congress encouraged some of them, like the Shiv Sena, to fight the Communists. But most of the regional parties ultimately became unlisted family enterprises (DMK/SP/RJD/NC/SS). Three others came to be run by single women (AIADMK/TMC/BSP). Since the Congress itself is a family-controlled party, it was easier for it to deal with other families through the patronage system. In fact, at one point of time, Indira Gandhi had a deal with the DMK where she allowed the latter to have all the assembly seats in lieu of the Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu. That was accommodation par excellence.
The amassing of wealth by the families that ran these regional parties was ignored with a benign smile. Sometimes, the corruption indulged in by these parties was useful to obtain their support at the centre.
But the emergence of the BJP as the other pole – and now the main pole - in national politics has altered the nature of the discourse. This is one of the reasons why the BJP and the Shiv Sena are having a tough time sealing the deal in Maharashtra. Unlike the Congress, the BJP seems less interested in the patronage/sharing system of spoils since it has a majority of its own in the Lok Sabha polls. To that extent it is not dependent on regional families like the DMK. The Sena is miffed that it has only one minister in the central cabinet.
Before its emergence as a big player on the national scene, the BJP decimated various powerful Socialist parties in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat over the last few decades. These three states had a significant presence of various Lohia-ite parties, all of which were very powerful in the 1960s and 1970s. But they all are totally forgotten and the BJP has emerged as the only alternative to the Congress in these three states.
The BJP believes in a pan-Indian identity based on Hinduness, or Hindutva, wherein being Hindu is a primary identity, which can have sub-identities in caste, language and religion. This idea, though not espoused openly by key BJP leaders today, is actually that of the RSS, which wants to emphasise the Hindu identity to trump caste and linguistic identities. Many of the regional parties today (SP/BSP/PMK/DMK/AIADMK/RJD) are really caste-based parties controlled by families. When the BJP is pitted against them, the major issue is often the primary identity. For instance, in the case of SP, the primary identity is Yadav. Similarly for other parties like RJD and BSP.
The new national rhythm of the BJP is thus a challenge to regionalism, which can create its own fault-lines in the Indian polity. The accommodative and patronage-based policy of the Congress towards regional satraps will be replaced by aggressive nationalist postures and a harder line towards corruption, especially since it is corruption and caste that sustain many of the regional family-based parties. The introduction of pan-Indian regulations and laws like GST will be accelerated. At the same time, the BJP may activate institutions like the Inter-State Council to deal with the genuine issues of states, and not act through regional satraps.
This is why we may soon find regional forces regrouping to protect their turf; the TMC seeking to negotiate a truce with the Left is one such indicator. The CPI(M) has been reduced to a regional party in West Bengal and Kerala and the BJP seems to be acquiring a part of its cadre. In Tamil Nadu, one need not be surprised if various regional outfits, under pressure from a rising BJP, either disappear or merge with the BJP or combine to oppose it. The same is the case in UP and Bihar.
The big battle between regional and central forces has started. It will have far-reaching implications, since BJP’s views on strong central authority and active state governments is different from the earlier idea of loot and scoot by regional powers, who used caste and identity to build a lock on power. The huge aspirational middle class in the urban centres is not enthusiastic about caste and language-based identity. Many of them interact with people belonging to other castes and languages in workplaces and living spaces.
The mass migration of the poor from the East and North East to the South and West of India has also altered traditional calculations. In the recent elections, we saw Dayanidhi Maran using Hindi language posters in Chennai to woo "north Indian" migrant voters. This, combined with inter-caste marriages, has altered the nature of "identity" politics. In this scenario, a revival of the Congress based on its traditional methods could be tough, since its patronage politics vis-à-vis regional families is under threat.
But the important regional parties to watch will be the Shiv Sena and the Akali Dal. Both are family-based and religion-oriented. Corruption is a major drawback for both parties, and the BJP has already shown a willingness to follow "coalition dharma" with them. These two regional outfits could be a drag on the centralisation tendencies of the BJP.
Our mainstream media is still pitching its political analysis around whether the Congress will revive or not. It should realise that much muddied water has flown down the Ganga and the Cauvery in the last five years and the traditional politics of the Congress is now tougher to practice. Whether the "Hindu" slogan will trump caste and linguistic identity will be the political trend to watch in the coming decade.
(The author is a professor at IIM Bangalore. Views are personal)
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