Parties to democracy

In the life of a diverse nation such as ours,regional parties have often saved the day

Written by Manpreet Badal | Published: July 5, 2012 2:28:59 am

In the life of a diverse nation such as ours,regional parties have often saved the day

Wise men say that a week is a long time in politics. By that token,two years is an eternity. So while it is presumptuous for anyone to predict what will happen in the general elections in 2014,I was taken aback by the recent spate of public comment that suggests that the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 shall witness a fractured verdict,and concomitantly a coalition government shall be at the helm of affairs. The strange,a priori conclusion is that economic growth would be a casualty. Now,I don’t know where this pessimism comes from,because this line of argument certainly isn’t substantiated by modern Indian history. The derogatory sobriquet of “Hindu rate of growth” was a legacy of days when we had complete majorities at the Centre,while the heady growth decades of the 1990s and 2000s were marked by coalitions of various hues at the Centre.

People forget that regional outfits have played a remarkable role in addressing the concerns of the regions they seek to represent. The most recent example is that of Bihar. It is Nitish Kumar’s performance and popularity in his home state,which at one time was deemed beyond redemption,that has burnished his credentials as a future prime ministerial candidate. The popularity of his counterpart in neighbouring Odisha is another example. In fact,it was Naveen Patnaik’s father,who was one of the pioneers of the regional cause. It was Chandrababu Naidu’s TDP that gave Hyderabad its reputation of being India’s technology capital.

James Madison once remarked that large,diverse republics with varying interests are a better home for liberty and equality than uniform societies. Regional parties have played a sterling role in perpetuating the principles of parliamentary democracy in our diverse nation. The parties at the Centre have often shown their vulnerability to hegemony and the tendency to frame insensitive policies. This attitude has been facilitated by a feeble or ineffective opposition in the Lok Sabha. Under those circumstances,it was the regional parties that saved the day. The most prominent example was the response to the attempt to lay down a “national language”. If the resentment of the Dravidian states had not found political expression under the stalwarts of DMK,secessionist fires would have engulfed the whole of south India. A cursory look at the history of the implementation of Article 356 shall reveal that the so-called national parties have often been goaded by hubris. Imposition of Central rule in the states was inevitably followed by thumping victories for regional parties in the subsequent assembly elections.

Of late,a term is gaining currency amongst India’s prosperous cognoscenti. “Wisdom of the crowds” is used to convey that the collective decisions of the people are more dependable than the decisions of a few. The concept is being used to power prediction markets by firms such as Google. Parliamentary democracy is the most brilliant form of this wisdom. If so many people are repeatedly voting for regional parties and local satraps,then they must be seeing some merit in them. And if the so-called national parties are truly pan-India,they should be scoring far more than the 100-150 odd Lok Sabha seats they get in every election. Their performance in state assembly elections is even more dismal. Also,if they are so confident about their all-India appeal,why do they need charismatic leaders such as Nitish to campaign for them in different states?

I served as finance minister of Punjab for four years and my experience was that Central schemes are often unsuited to our specific needs. For example,the below poverty line definition as laid down by the Centre ensured that thousands of poor in Punjab could not the get much-needed financial aid. Similarly,there was no provision for upgradation of Punjab’s dilapidated irrigation infrastructure in the Centre’s agriculture schemes. This happened because the policymakers at the Centre had failed to keep the specific conditions of Punjab in mind. The seven sisters in the Northeast often had a justifiable grudge that the governments run by national parties in Delhi seldom paid heed to their needs.

Without regional parties,India would have been closer to V.S. Naipaul’s unfair rubric of a land of a million mutinies. India was lucky to have brilliant visionaries as its first leaders,post-Independence. B.R. Ambedkar ensured that giving adequate powers to the states was imperative to build the foundation of a thriving democracy. Even the government-appointed Sarkaria Commission recommended greater powers for state governments. But the parties at the Centre,always wary of regional leaders,have never implemented these recommendations,thereby denying people good governance and,in the process,strengthening the appeal of regional parties.

I am not saying that all is well with regional parties. Many of them,especially those that have been there for a long time,are afflicted with the same ills that are symptomatic of the national parties — nepotism,corruption,dynasty over merit and an indulgence in the subversion of democratic principles by browbeating smaller,upcoming players. They need to remember that stacks of cash and intimidatory tactics can work only up to a point,and if they fail to live up to the expectations of the electorate,the wisdom of the crowd shall visit the same ruination upon them as it did upon brash national parties.

The writer is founder president,People’s Party of Punjab

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