Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Monday, Mar 29, 2004
Columns - Wide Canvas
Regionalism in driver's seat
Ranabir Ray Choudhury
This, in fact, is nothing new because, if one studies the formation of governments at the Centre from the end of the 1980s till date, this is precisely the conclusion that one will arrive at.
The report in question, in an effort to buttress its argument with statistical information, cites the position of the major, national parties like the Congress and the BJP in various states and compares it with the clout of the regional parties such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Biju Janata Dal, the Telugu Desam Party and the Janata Dal(U), among others.
The report finds that, in Bihar, Laloo Prasad Yadav's RJD is expected to allot not more than five seats of the 40 to the Congress, the other two national parties the CPI(M) and the CPI being given perhaps just one seat (going to the former).
In Andhra Pradesh (42), the TDP has given the BJP just nine seats while in Orissa (21) the latter has also been allotted the same number of seats by the BJD. In Tamil Nadu, Ms Jayalalithaa has set aside just six of the 39 seats in the State Assembly along with the Pondicherry Union Territory seat.
In Punjab, the Akalis have given the BJP only three seats of 13 seats. Only in Maharashtra (48), the report points out, has the BJP been given a "fair" deal in that its regional ally, the Shiv Sena, has set aside half of the constituencies going to the polls.
Importantly, while the Congress has been treated shoddily by the RJD in Bihar, it has fared somewhat better in some other States, which perhaps indicates that the party of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru, even while being on the wane in the Lok Sabha and in a large number of State Assemblies, can still rely on its former image to get a largish share of the seat cake vis-à-vis smaller, regional parties.
Thus, as the report points out, in Maharashtra the party will be fighting for 26 seats leaving 18 for its major ally, Mr Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party. In Andhra Pradesh the party will be contesting 35 seats, the remaining seven being distributed among the Telengana Rashtra Samiti (5) and the CPI(M) and CPI.
In Jharkand, the Congress will fight eight of the 14 seats, three being left for the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and one for the CPI (there will be friendly contests in two seats). As for the CPI(M), while it calls the shots in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, it hardly exists in most other parts of the country.
What this means is that, if this pattern of electoral preference is to persist in the years ahead, India can firmly bid goodbye to the era of one-party government at the Centre and turn its face irrevocably towards the coalition system of government.
This view is of course posited on the belief that neither the Congress nor the BJP can ever hope to establish their presence meaningfully in the States that is, a recovery of its past image in the case of the former and the gaining of fresh ground on the part of the latter.
But how valid is this belief, in the first place? This is a difficult question to answer not the least because it is dependent on the performance of the two parties, and that "performance" is something that is going to happen in the future. In other words, if the Congress is able to refurbish its image in the years ahead, and impress suitably the electorate all over the country, it could stage a comeback in the Lok Sabha as a truly national party with a firm footprint all over the subcontinent.
Similarly, it is not impossible to imagine that the BJP could spread its "saffron" tentacles far and wide and, by the time the present decade is out, have registered its presence forcefully in virgin regions (as far as the party is concerned). But all this uncertain, and there is no way of even indicating a trend at this point of time because everything depends on a "new leadership" emerging in both the parties, which itself is an issue on which nothing firm can be said at the moment.
But can something be said about the future depending on the way the immediate past has evolved in the area of interest to us?
More specifically, is there a discernible trend in the way national politics has been evolving over a sufficiently long period of time, which can lend some credence to predictions for the immediate future?
Seen from this perspective, one can perhaps be justified to an extent in suggesting that not only has the era of coalition governments at the Centre begun in the country, there is every sign of the trend becoming even more powerful in the years ahead with its attendant consequences on the quality of national governance.
Leaving aside the experience of Kerala and West Bengal in the 1950s and the 1960s, the first jolt to the unitary sway of the Congress at the Centre came in 1977 when Indira Gandhi was swept out of power and the Janata Party regime led by Morarji Desai was enthroned in Delhi.
Fundamentally, this was the first assault on Congress rule at the Centre. In an expected reaction, the pendulum swayed back towards unitary Congress rule in the eighties, to be hit again in 1989 when the V. P. Singh Government was formed, followed by the shortlived Chandrasekhar regime.
Once more, very weakly though, power returned to the Congress under the leadership of P. V. Narasimha Rao, a Government which managed to survive its full tenure solely because of the political acumen and dexterity of the then Prime Minister.
But the one-party-government-at the-Centre equilibrium an intrinsically unstable one considering the vastness of the country and the myriad interests populating it from time immemorial had clearly run its course and by 1996 the true character of Indian politics had broken free from its 1947-imposed shackles.
The coalition mantra, reflecting the true character of India's variegated social and political life, had firmly taken over, and there has been no looking back since then.
For our purposes here, if this is an indicative trend, the conclusion can be drawn, tentatively no doubt, that it will be quite a while before national parties can once again make their presence felt in the regions.
Conversely, it is the regional parties which are likely to call the shots increasingly at the Centre, thereby strengthening the coalition strain in Indian politics and, importantly, perhaps leading to a progressive weakening of Central governance with serious consequences for the economic wellbeing of the nation.
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