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States of politics

How regional parties shape national polity will depend on their historical trajectories, specific contexts.

Written by Suhas Palshikar
June 16, 2016 12:13:50 am
Ajit Jogi, Ajit Jogi Congress, Ajit Jogi new party, Ajit Jogi Third Front, Chhatisgarh Third Front, BJP, PDP, Akali Dal, AGP, Shiv Sena, Mamata Banerjee, Trinamool Congress, Nitish Kumar, third front, state party, India news The state parties are neither naturally anti-communal nor are they natural allies of the BJP. (Source: File photo)

As Ajit Jogi forms a new party, the focus would once again turn to state-level parties. Already, the latest round of assembly elections has underscored the clout of state parties. These developments, along with the inability of the Congress to resurrect itself from the debris of the 2014 defeat, beg the all-too-familiar question again: What role are state parties likely to play in shaping national politics?

Already, the BJP is in partnership with at least four major state parties — PDP, Akali Dal, AGP and Shiv Sena — besides having the support of the TDP. In the run-up to the next parliamentary election, it could further intensify its bid to ally with more state parties. On the other hand, anti-BJP forces would draw succour from the fact that Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, like Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), could become the centre of the new anti-BJP (“secular”) alliance in the near future. This tendency to superimpose discursive categories on the politics of regional forces is somewhat self-defeating and misleading. In the ideological haste to imagine a non-communal political alternative, the historical trajectory and the state-specific context for the rise and continued predominance of the state parties are always ignored.

The absence of an all-India alternative and inability of the Congress to federally incorporate regional aspirations contributed to the rise of the so-called regional parties and they thrived once the local power structures belonging to the Congress began to crumble. It is well-known that the limitations of state parties in tackling the Congress and their all-India aspirations facilitated their alliances with the BJP in the ‘90s. The BJP was then a junior player in most of the states, making the regional parties secure. Whenever the ambitions of the state party and the BJP clashed, their coalitions came under pressure. The earliest instance of this was the BJP-BSP alliance intended to keep the SP away. This alliance never worked because both partners were impatient to emerge as the main player in the state. Similarly, the JD(S)-BJP alliance in Karnataka was ill-fated because each party perceived itself to be the main challenger to the Congress and wanted to use the other only as a temporary prop. Over time, Odisha, West Bengal, and more recently Bihar and Maharashtra, have exemplified the limitations of the BJP’s regional game plan. In these states, once the BJP began to expand and become a major player, the state-level partner developed problems with the BJP and discovered that it was, after all, a communal force.

The lessons to be drawn from this historical context are two-fold. First, the state parties are neither naturally anti-communal nor are they natural allies of the BJP. It is true that the Trinamool Congress or the JD(U) had to take into consideration the wariness of the Muslim voter vis-à-vis the BJP. However, that was not deterrent enough to their overtures to the BJP. It is the state-level context which will decide their stance towards the BJP. Take the case of Tamil Nadu. If the Congress has chosen to continue its alliance with the DMK, it makes sense for the AIADMK to build bridges with the BJP. The case of West Bengal is even more instructive. Here is a ruling party that was for the past two years engaged in an anti-BJP slanging match, has a large contingent in the Lok Sabha, and yet was isolated in the assembly elections. This isolation can easily force the TMC to rethink its strategy regarding the BJP.

The second lesson is that state parties would align with the so-called all-India parties only when the latter do not have much strength to unsettle state-level political equations. As the BJP now keeps expanding in state after state and, under its aggressive national president, trumpets its ambition to rule the country for the next 10 or 20 years, the natural course for most state parties would be to remain cautious of the BJP. Thus, the BJP would find it hard to win the hearts of many state parties. From the Vajpayee era of the mid-’90s, not only have personalities changed, from Mahajan-Vajpayee to Shah-Modi, the core approach of the BJP has changed. Then, the BJP was struggling to gain power at the Centre and acceptance beyond the western and northern regions. Now, the party has made a dent in the east and is looking forward to gain entry in the south. Its future course can hardly be served if it restricts its all-India ambitions in favour of regional allies.

These two lessons have contradictory strategic relevance. As the BJP gains new regional partners and retains some older ones, its relation with these partners is bound to be of tension, suspicion and uncertainty. However, this is no guarantee that state parties would form an anti-BJP front. The Congress would, of course, look forward to such a front given the success of the mahagatbandhan in Bihar last year. However, for such a front to materialise, two preconditions need to be fulfilled.

One is that the Congress must perform well in the states where it is supposed to take on the BJP — Gujarat, Rajasthan, MP, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. Only then can it become a serious partner in the anti-BJP front. In other words, the strength that the Congress has to bring to such a front has to come from states where state parties have no stakes. Secondly, the Congress has to be prepared to play a secondary role in states where state-level players are already ensconced. This is exactly what it did in Bihar, but refused to do in West Bengal. It is understandable that this strategic move would create unease within the Congress because it would mean accepting a secondary role in a large number of states, something that can impede the party’s revival. It is therefore unlikely that a real anti-BJP front could emerge from the present set of state parties.

The “regionalism” that state parties inevitably bring into focus constitutes another stumbling block for both the Congress and BJP — not necessarily for ideological reasons but because these two parties have to build support across states. For instance, Ajit Jogi has already invoked the “pride of Chhattisgarh”. Nitish and Lalu, too, thrived on “Bihari pride” during elections last year. Resort to regional pride is becoming a common feature of the politics of state parties. How the BJP and Congress negotiate that will decide their coalition strategies.

In fact, the criss-cross of national and state-level political scenarios might be better understood if we imagine the game of chess where there are not one but many overlapping chess boards and some pieces are common to many boards and some confined to only one. It is a moot question if the kings and queens of different chessboards can emerge as King or Queen across boards.

The writer teaches political science at Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune.

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