States of play

States of play

The critique of regional parties stems mostly from the failure to appreciate politics at multiple levels

The critique of regional parties stems mostly from the failure to appreciate politics at multiple levels

English philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ forceful metaphor to characterise smaller associations,opposition and dissent to the Leviathan,“like worms in the entrails of a natural man”,may today summarise the critique of single-state political parties in popular discourse. The dominant theme is that the so-called regional political parties not only represent and serve small and narrow pockets of self-interested political classes,but are also the primary obstacles to the consolidation of democracy in India. The rise and dominance of single-state parties represents a decline from a “golden age”,and so,like Hobbes,the critics want these parties to be exorcised.

The underlying normative idea is that the logic of modernisation would flatten regional and parochial identities and allow for the emergence of nationwide cleavages. Polity-wide parties that extend across the country were the players to watch out for and the government at the Centre was the big prize to be won. A connected idea is that politics at the state level is secondary and important only insofar as it tell us something about national politics.

However,political processes in India rarely follow predetermined scripts. Parties that advanced particularistic identities and formed around distinctive regionally concentrated interests did not fade away. Instead,some even displaced polity-wide parties as the major actors in some states. At the same time,despite a strong-Centre based Constitution,states have become the primary arena of politics in the country.


Despite their long lineage,despite winning and governing at the state-level and playing a prominent role in federal coalitions,single-state parties — like the DMK,RJD,TDP,AIADMK,JMM,National Conference,Akali Dal and Shiv Sena,among others — are viewed not just with disdain but are also seen to be the cause of most ills. The assumption is that these parties are born short-sighted and when they dictate terms at the national level it does more harm than good.

But no matter what the critics say,politics since the 1990s has shown that single-state political parties are here to stay. The vote share of single-state parties and independents has gone up from around 21 per cent in the ninth Lok Sabha to 36.4 per cent in the current Lok Sabha. At the same time,the two polity-wide parties,the Congress and the BJP,obtained less than 50 per cent of the votes in the 15th general elections.

In the literature on political parties and party systems,both the sociological and institutional perspectives would allude to compelling reasons for the continued existence of single-state parties. India’s social diversity,combined with numerous cross-cutting cleavages,opens space for the existence of a wide order of political parties. The first-past-the-post electoral system and a parliamentary federal institutional framework incentivise political parties to territorialise and choose among multiple strategies. Potentially,they could compete only at the state level either in one state or some states,only at the federal level or follow a mixed strategy and compete at multiple levels. In this framework,parties may be content mobilising only a section of the population and need not always aspire for a polity-wide status.

Much of the critique of the so-called regional political parties is based on a single-level polity-wide vision and fails to appreciate politics at multiple levels. Second,evaluating single-state and region-based parties,as well as polity-wide parties,using the same lens,is inappropriate. Third,it ignores a host of interrelated changes,especially in the party system,over the last two decades.

The primary operational arena,political project and policies of state-based parties are territory specific. They tend to mobilise people around the claim that they are best equipped to defend the interests of the state. In contrast,polity-wide parties organise,compete and have interests at different levels. While polity-wide parties aim to win power independently at the national level,state-based parties may think of governing at the Centre only as a part of a coalition,given that the seats they contest are much lower.

The demands for special concessions,packages and resources on the Central government that often get highlighted are part of the assemblage of mobilisational strategy of single-state parties. The limited electoral appeal of these parties obviously qualifies their goals and concerns. The projection of these limited goals onto national politics brings out the interrelation and complexity of politics in a multi-level polity.

It is not that these complexities did not exist earlier — political competition in India has primarily revolved around the use of state resources. The Congress,during the height of its dominance,manipulated public policy instruments along electoral cycles to serve state-specific interests. The only difference today is that the compromises no longer take place in the shadows. The loud bargaining and posturing often witnessed highlights the reality of territorial differentiation,and is an intrinsic part of the game.

Finally,it is also important to factor in the changes in the party system. The weakening of the Congress and the emergence of a competitive multi-party system has,over a period of time,paradoxically also led to a significant decline in anti-Congressism. This represents a fundamental shift in the way politics was organised since the late 1960s. Heightened competitiveness has also led to a reduction in the distinctiveness among political parties. To increase their coalition potential,parties have moderated their views and are increasingly looking similar to one another. Parties also appear to be willing to join with each other more readily than before. This convergence makes it difficult to distinguish saint from sinner.

Acknowledging the differential operational logic of single-state and polity-wide parties and taking into account the changed nature of the party system is essential to make sense of why different parties act the way they do.

The writer teaches Political Science at Panjab University,Chandigarh