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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 8, February 14, 2015

Regional Parties: New Challenges

Monday 16 February 2015

by Moitree Bhattacharya

The politics of regional parties in India is passing through a critical phase in recent times. In this phase, the regional parties are not only losing political influence, they are also facing a threat of electoral decline. In the last few decades these regional parties gradually expanded both politically and electorally, emerged as important actors not only in the States but also in national politics. By improving electoral performance some of them even acquired the status of national parties. However, in the recently held polls their electoral fortunes declined. This electoral setback was further intensified by the political situation arising out of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and a slew of State Assembly elections thereafter.

It goes without saying that many of these parties that rose to prominence through a grinding course of struggle lost effectiveness in the recent past because of their poor electoral performance. Parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh, Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) in Haryana, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar, National Conference (NC) in J&K, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) in Jharkhand could not fare well in the latest elections. Their performance was not only poor in the parliamentary elections but even in the State Assembly elections. Resultantly many of these parties became electorally so weak that they lost their assertiveness in both State as well as national politics. They may be politically active but have lost their dominance in State politics. The impact of this is being clearly felt in national politics too. It may be pointed out that the BSP, which still retains the national party status, could not win a single seat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. In the forthcoming UP State Assembly elections in 2017 the BSP’s greatest challenge is to retrieve its electoral relevance amidst strong contest from the BJP and SP. Having been decimated in the Lok Sabha polls many of these smaller outfits, like the RLD headed by Ajit Singh, will have to battle hard to hold on to their base.

In contrast, the Janata Dal (United) and Samajwadi Party (SP) performed poorly in the parliamentary elections despite their spectacular show in the last Assembly polls in Bihar and UP respectively. The looming crisis has spurred Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) and Mulayam Singh Yadav of the SP into a so-called ‘unity exercise’ whereby these erstwhile Janata Dal constituents along with a couple of others, namely, the Karnataka-based Janata Dal (Secular) led by H.D. Deve Gowda and Haryana-based INLD of Om Prakash Chautala began talks of merger in order to come out of electoral isolation. Another party that joined this unity exercise is the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) led by Laloo Prasad Yadav, based primarily in Bihar, which suffered consecutive setbacks in both the Assembly and parliamentary elections.

A third category of regional outfits like the All India Trinamul Congress (AITC) in West Bengal, AIADMK in Tamil Nadu and Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Odisha have performed brilliantly in both the parliamentary and Assembly elections. Nevertheless, they are losing their assertive sheen in Indian politics. Notwith-standing robust electoral performance, each of them confronts tremendous political challenge in their respective States. The challenges they face are three-fold: financial constraints, multipolar Opposition in States and charges of corruption against leading party functionaries. In the first place, the challenge of administering the States under tremendous financial constraints forces the regional parties to work under unprecedented pressure in recent times. While the disbursement of funds from the Union Government to the States is increasingly shrinking, private investment is not picking up as expected.

Secondly, these parties are confronting stupendous political opposition within their own States. In the States bipolarity is giving way to multipolar politics. Earlier, that is, between 2009 and 2012, in West Bengal the political contest was virtually between the AITC and the Left Front, the Congress being in alliance with the former. In Tamil Nadu the fight was mainly between the DMK and AIADMK. The Congress was in alliance with the DMK. In Odisha the political rivalry was primarily between the BJD and Congress. The BJP was a junior partner of the BJD. Today the scenario has undergone a change in all the three States. While the AITC is confronting strong opposition not only from the Left Front and Congress in West Bengal, the BJP has emerged as a formidable force in the political arena of the State. Similarly in Tamil Nadu the AIADMK today is confronting the BJP, DMK, Congress and to some extent the MDMK. In Odisha after the breakdown of alliance between the BJD and BJP, the latter has emerged as the main Opposition force other than the Congress. Although these regional parties are ruling in the States with strong electoral presence, they have to confront tremendous political pressure from multiple Opposition parties. The emergence and intensification of multipolar electoral contest is not only confined to these three States but also in many others like UP, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana. In Uttar Pradesh too there is a quadrangular contest whereby the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) is facing opposition from the BJP, BSP and Congress. With multi-party Opposition taking root in these States, the challenge before the ruling regional parties is really great.

IN addition, top functionaries of these parties are facing serious charges of corruption which is progressively eroding their image in public eye. Legal proceedings are pending against many of them. In their desperate effort at resisting disrepute or trying to come out of legal entanglements, their political dominance in the States has come under challenge. This is not only weakening their clout in national and State politics but what is of more concern is that in their attempt to come out of such charges, their attention is getting deviated from critical politico-administrative issues. To take the example of Tamil Nadu: J. Jayalalithaa’s convic-tion, sentence and resultant crowning of a ‘lame duck’ Chief Minister has apparently put the ruling party on the backfoot ahead of the 2016 Assembly polls. It is reported that since she obtained bail, the AIADMK chief has not shown interest in attending party functions or political meetings. In Odisha and West Bengal, senior ruling party functionaries are facing serious charges of corruption. This may lead to the AITC and BJD losing political dominance in their respective States.

Another category of regional parties are the partners in the BJP-led NDA, namely, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and Shiv Sena. Their problems are not uniform. Among them, the TDP had aligned with the BJP just on the eve of the parliamentary and Assem-bly elections held simultaneously in Andhra Pradesh. It did extremely well. On the contrary, the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance, which swept the parliamentary elections in Maharashtra in May 2014, broke just on the eve of the State Assembly elections in October 2014. The Shiv Sena could not perform as expected and was relegated to the second position while the BJP emerged as the single largest party in the State Assembly. The alliance between the two parties was restored after that. But in this whole process the Shiv Sena lost its pre-eminent position in the State-level alliance. The SAD in alliance with BJP in Punjab, despite winning two consecutive Assembly elections since 2007, is now facing too many problems including its apparent uneasy relations with the latter.

The changing position of regional parties in Indian politics results also from the meteoric rise of one of the national parties, that is, the BJP in the electoral arena. Regional parties that fared well in their States find themselves isolated from the ruling dispensation at the Centre due to the stunning success of a single party in the last parliamentary elections. Having attained a sweeping majority, the BJP could form the government without the support of any other party; a phenomenon that happened in Indian politics for the first time in the last thirty years. It posed a unique challenge to many of these regional parties. These smaller parties—that got used to power-sharing and sometimes even dictating to the Union Government on decisions pertaining to national and also international issues—have suddenly found themselves out of the realm of decision-making. It goes without saying that more these regional political outfits lose their interventionist strength, the stronger would be the hands of the incumbent ruling party at the Centre or vice versa.

If this trend continues and the regional parties progressively lose their electoral and political strength, it is bound to bring a distinct change in the nature of Indian politics. Howsoever temporary it may be, the challenge is unique in the sense that it has virtually snapped their assertive clout in the corridors of power. The uniqueness of the challenge lies also in the fact that this declining influence of the regional parties may give rise to a new dimension to our federal polity. One does not know how long this phenomenon will continue. If the trend continues then the challenge may snowball into a crisis for many of the regional parties. The Assembly elections due in 2015-2017 in Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Punjab and UP would critically determine the trajectory of the regional parties as well as the future course of Indian politics.

The author teaches Political Science in Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi. She can be contacted at moitree.du@gmail.com