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Regional Parties In India’s Emerging Politics

Updated: February 8, 2014 2:59 pm

The agenda for and expectations from the forthcoming sixteenth Lok Sabha elections in May 2014 were set following the four Legislative Assemblies elections—Chhattisgarh, Delhi (National Capital Territory), Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram and Rajasthan—during November-December 2013. As much the fate of the binodal politics, pivoting on the Indian National Congress (Congress) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since 1998, as the role of smaller state-based regional parties against the backdrop of the sixteenth general elections have opened up speculation and debate.

All the four Assemblies that went to polls have bipolar (Mizoram) or bi-party (the rest three) system and except for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) surprise in Delhi, the outcome resulted in retention or alternation. The emergence of AAP as the second-largest party in Delhi with 28 seats in the 70-member Assembly appears a game-changer; it was immediately accorded the status of a state party by the Election Commission of India (ECI). The AAP government in Delhi with Congress support could be a defining moment if it can rise above populism and streamline governance. Having challenged the monopoly of the two national parties in Delhi, AAP is preparing to contest Haryana and looking for a national role by questioning the established rule of the political game, which could be a bumpy path. Preparing to contest over 200 Lok Sabha seats, its performance would be keenly watched.

Broadly, despite the Congress and BJP becoming essential to an alternation process in India, state/regional parties have emerged as a significant phenomenon both at the national and state levels due to the fractured nature of the party system and fragmented mandates it leads to. Naturally, the sixteenth general elections in 2014 will bring in several of state/regional parties as stakeholders at the national stage, a phenomenon that commenced in 1989. It presents an interesting changing tapestry of alliances with state/regional parties as significant stakeholders in power along with the two national parties. Between 1998 and 2009, the two major coalitions, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), were built on the support of several parties, most of whom being state parties. The BJP-led 1998 NDA had 24 partners, 20 of whom were state/regional parties and 17 had presence in only one state. A more cohesive NDA in 1999 had 17 state/regional parties and in 2004 it consisted of 11 state/regional parties. The UPA in 2004 had 11 state/regional parties in the alliance, starting with 19 such parties in 2009, it had nine parties withdrawing from the alliance, later three supported from outside. Further, parties such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhgham (DMK), the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhgham (AIADMK), the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) that now give outside support to the UPA, as also some of the smaller parties, were represented in both the coalitions as well as in the Third Front. Some even tried constituting a fourth front. Obviously, the dynamic pattern of emerging alliances could present a new jigsaw in 2014, with state/regional parties playing a key role. Whether AAP graduates to a national party or plays it cards as state party would be keenly watched. In any case, a debate on the impact of the state parties on the Indian polity, the party system and democracy would further intensify. We thus need to comprehend the phenomenon of regionalism in India.

Region and Regionalism

Jawaharlal Nehru cautioned against ‘evils’ such as ‘communalism, casteism, regionalism and linguism’ as he inaugurated national integration conference on September 28, 1961. Forty-five years later on September 1, 2005, while reviving the National Integration Council (NIC) that Nehru had inaugurated, Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh underlined adequate space for regional and sub-regional identities and cultures in India’s pluralistic society and polity: “These are not necessarily inimical to our larger concept of nationhood. We must rejoice at the blossoming of these regional identities and lay emphasis on harmony rather than uniformity. We must, at the same time, ensure that these local identities become part of our diverse mosaic in a harmonious way rather than become the cause for divisiveness and exclusion.” Significantly, 14 years after Independence, Nehru felt the need for the NIC, it fell into disuse four decades later and while reviving the institution after 13 years Manmohan Singh stressed ‘harmony rather than uniformity’, a candid admission that regionalism is integral to Indian identity and politics, in the twenty-first century.

Obviously, dynamic concepts of nation and region involving historical, geographical, social, political and administrative categories have been viewed with centripetal vs. centrifugal and unity vs. fragmentation arguments in India because Partition of the subcontinent created a fear of centrifugal tendencies. Despite the suspicion, regional sentiments around the country questioned the reorganisation of states in 1956 and fruition of several regional claims since doubled the number of states from 14 to 28. This inconclusive process created new demands for statehood from ‘regions’ and stressed that the nation in India must come to terms with and harmonise regional aspirations.

The plurality of India, also in terms of multiple regions, invited balkanisation fears quite early in India’s democratic journey. Yet, the fears of Tamil separatism in the 1960s were absorbed by the Indian democratic process when the Dravidian political party DMK took centre stage in Madras/Tamil Nadu state. While separatist fears in Jammu and Kashmir and some parts of the northeast have persisted since Independence, India has resolved some violent secessionist demands such as Khalistan (in Punjab) and Mizoram. Regionalism in India has found expression largely in demands for creation of a new state or formation of a new party; on occasions both have coincided and aided each other. An acknowledgement that creation of smaller states based on regional and administrative considerations could lead to better governance is the reflection of regions being perceived as components strengthening Indian democracy, though a consensus on the basis for and number of states has been difficult, given the number of claims. However, while many ethnic/regional claims that became states were supported by regional parties, very few of such parties survived following the statehood.

Parties—National and Regional

The founding of the Indian National Congress, a platform for urban educated Indians to ventilate their grievances against the British colonial rule in December 1885, became the foundation of the party system in India. Between the six-decade-long struggle for Independence from colonial rule and the Congress becoming post-Independence ‘one-party-dominant system’ or the ‘Congress system’ as described by Rajni Kothari, there were occasions of ideology-based splits and mergers, which in retrospect could be considered to be the shape of things to come in India’s post-Independence democratic journey, i.e., India’s competitive politics over decades creating many more political platforms based on regional and other interests than all continuing to be on one platform based on an overarching social coalition. The maintenance of such a social coalition over decades also meant sustaining a strong and cohesive political organisation against political challenges being posed by multiple political ideologies and interests, including regional ones. As the Congress began to wilt under multiple pressures since the mid-1960s following the transition from the liberation-movement-generation to the post-Independence generations in 67 years since Independence, social coalition shrunk from a broad one to an electorally winning one, the residues emerging as smaller parties.


The formation of the Janata Party in 1977 briefly altered the ‘Congress system’ in signalling emergence of an alternative, only to deceive within a couple of years. A decade of Congress rule during the 1980s was also its own undoing, with a few regional outfits taking salience or emerging on regional issues, and by the mid-1990s it became one of the major national parties, the BJP emerging as the alternative competitor. Important regional issues emerging during the two decades that witnessed weakening of the Congress were militancy in Punjab, the Assam movement, a movement for Telugu pride and the emergence of the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh, aside from many fragments emerging with splits and merging back to the parent party or vanishing.

The emerging tapestry of parties has been clear from the Election Commission of India (ECI) records of parties since 1951. During the first general elections, it mentions 14 national parties and 124 other state parties. Its 2009 general election data mentions seven national parties, 34 state parties and 322 registered unrecognised parties participated in elections. The ECI 2011 order on parties mentions six national parties, 34 state parties and 318 registered unrecognised parties. Of the national parties, only four—the Congress, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh/BJP, the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—have been constant in the list since 1951. Electoral data also indicates that since 1989 only the Congress and the BJP have been serious contenders for power, rest of the national parties including the two communist parties have only been national definitionally.

The Indian party system has come to have different categories of parties, which in academic analyses have been referred to as polity-wide parties and state parties, through fission and fusion of parties from the Congress behemoth since Independence on ideology or leadership ambition, ethnic and/or regional/state interests, pursued by a group or a leader. The weakening of the Congress in the mid-1960s, mid-1970s and since the mid-1980s hastened mushrooming of parties. However, a few significant trends deserve analysis. First is the formation of the Justice Party in the Madras Presidency in 1917 on an anti-Brahmin plank and its eventual transformation in 1944 by Periyar EV Ramaswamy Naicker into Dravida Kazhgham, a party that carried the anti-Brahmin plank further. Both the DMK, which decisively displaced the Congress from Madras/Tamil Nadu politics in the fourth general elections in 1967, and the AIADMK that branched out from the DMK, is now in alternation with it in Tamil Nadu since 1972, continue to be part of the same tradition. Among the earliest parties arising out of ‘regional’ sentiments would be Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab (1920), Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (1932), Jharkhand Party (1949) and several parties in different states of India’s northeast. They have represented a mix of religious, ethnic and regional sentiments and their movements and demands have varied from full autonomy to separate statehood. Politically, each one of them has represented a region and its people in an atomised micro sense, but from the perspective of a polity, they have rightly been named state parties. For, ‘region’ gives a sense of nuclearisation of the nation, which could prove to be a contrarian process to nation building in a plural society, while situating the parties within the ‘states’ that are constitutional geographical units within the polity and gives an inclusive perspective. However, even as regionalism at different points of time has been described as a negative process and as a reflection of plurality that deserves to be harmonised, it must be admitted that despite some contrarian processes, it has become integral to India’s competitive politics in over six decades of electoral process. India’s constitutional process has been interacting with regionalism, which has at times given rise to parties that focus on ethnic and identity-based demands of regions of different sizes, as lately in the case of Telangana region in the state of Andhra Pradesh, and attending to grievances and demands that arise as a result. However, all the parties, categorised generically as regional, are not regional in the true sense of the term.

‘Regional’ Parties, National Politics

State/regional parties in most cases have national ambitions, many of whom such as the AIADMK, the All India Trinamool Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party and so on have prefixed their larger aspirations and agenda. However, either an independent formation or a fragment from any of the larger national parties, they have carved out a niche area of political influence for electoral dominance for themselves, cutting into the vote of one or the other national party. The creation of the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh in 1983, for example, led to weakening of the Congress, till it clawed back in 2004. Similarly, the Trinamool Congress impacted the fortunes of the Congress in West Bengal. The BJP too was impacted in Karnataka when it removed the party Chief Minister in the state BS Yeddyurappa due to controversies and he formed Karnataka Janata Paksha that cut into the BJP votes in 2013 Assembly elections. Moreover, with coalition politics at the national level a norm, the two national parties have to seek out to these outfits to form the government at the Centre. These parties signify Marcus Franda’s formulation ‘small is politics’.


Clearly, despite emphasis on nation building based on an all-encompassing Indian nation, region and local were given sufficient space to flourish socially and culturally. Naturally, their political manifestations could have been capped only as long as a pan-Indian political party could represent most of local and regional aspirations. As Paul Brass has prophetically argued, tension between homogenising and pluralist, national and regional, centralising and decentralising tendencies are at the heart of struggle for power in Indian politics, and that ‘the long-term prognosis remains in favour of the latter set of forces’. This is a prognosis that has been increasingly supported by the results of elections held in India during the past decade and a half. However, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s celebration of regionalism quoted above and the readiness with which national parties are seeking regional parties for electoral alliances, reflect greater acceptance of regionalism both at cultural and political levels.

By Ajay K Mehra

(The writer is Honorary Director, Centre for Public Affairs, Noida)

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