Regional political parties in india s. Bhatnagar pradeep kumar



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The second criterion of a regional political party is that, typically, it articulates and seeks to defend are regionally based ethnic or religio-cultural identity. Thus Dravid Munnetra Kazagham (DMK and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (AIADMK) act s as the voice and champions of Tamil 'cultural nationalism13 against the inroads of what is perceived as Aryan imperialism of the north. The shrill and confrontationist idiom in which the two parties conducted their politics until the mid-seventies has been substantially softened in recent years but the concern for Tamil identity and opposition to the 'imposition' of Hindi continue to be the main planks in their platform. N.T. Rama Rao, a former matinee idol like his Tamil counterpart M.G. Ramachandran, and his Telugu Desam burst into politics under the banner of Telugu gauravam or 'self-respect'. The akali Dal in its various incarnations, has stuck tenaciously to its claim to be the defender of the interests of Sikh Panth and the Punjab. Asom Gana Parishad was born out of the fierce popular movement which sought to stem and reverse the tide of immigration from other states West Bengal and from Bangladesh. At stake was the survival of Assamese identity.

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In the third place, it is in the very nature of a regional party to be primarily concerned with exploiting local sources of discontent or pressing a variety of primordial demand based on language, caste, community or region 14". This is so because the electoral destiny of these parties is inseperably linked with their respective regions. With no hope of capturing power or being able to play a decisive role at the Centre, they perceive their essential role as pressure groups for protecting and promoting the interests of regional communities and, to that end, mobilising local support by playing up real or imagined feelings of discrimination or deprivation. When N.T. Rama Rao opposes a 'national' policy on water resources which proposes to treat an entire river basin rather than the territorial limits of a state as a unit, his opposition results from the preception that the principle, if implemented, will trim his freedom to push on with his Telugu Ganga project despite the objections raised by neighbouring states like Karnataka. A similar perception characterises the Akali claims in respect of the distribution of Ravi Beas waters among the Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan and the Party's insistence on the riparian principle. To sum up : a regional political party has a regional support base, a regional perspective and a regional issue - orientation.



Border-line Cases and Some Distinctions

Evidently, major regional parties in India - National Conference, the two main Akali Dals, both DMKs, Telugu Desam, Mizo National Front-adequately meet the three criteria laid down above. There are, however some border line cases.

For instance Nar Bahadur Bhandari's Sikkim Sangram Parishad. A hurt and humiliated Bhandari set up this outfit when he was removed from the office of chief minister through a blatant misuse of the governor's powers. The rebound Bhandari founded his Parishad and rode back to power in the assembly election that followed. There are indications that he is not averse to returning to the Congress (I) fold along with his party. It remains to be seen whether the Congress and its government at the centre can meet Bhandari's demands some of which (reservation of seats in the state assembly for Nepalese and citizenship for over thirty thousand Nepali settlers) are not only stiff but, if conceded, can create problems elsewhere in the country. The Sikkim Sangram Parishad is, thus, a regional party on probation. Bhim Singh's miniscule Panthers Party which claims to fight for justice for the Jammu sub-region of the state of Jammu&Kashmir is hardly a party, regional or otherwise. It is a one-man show with little by way of electoral achievement

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to boast of. In the 1984 poll, Bhim Singh himself failed to retain his seat in the state assembly. Then there is Subhas Ghising's Gorkha National Liberation Front. Whether the Front is able to transform itself into a regional party depends on two things. One whether it accepts the best the centre and West Bengal government are prepared to offer viz. regional autonomy for the hill regions of Darjeeling as against the Front's demand for a separate Gorkhaland state within the Indian Union. Second, whether Ghising can give proof of his ability to persuade some of his 'extremist' colleagus to abandon recourse to violence and commit themselves to electoral politics and non-violent agitation as its mode of action. Jharkhand Mukti Morcha has all the makings of a regular regional party. However the movement has all along been be-devilled by leadership problems, recurring splits and hassles of self-definition in terms of the area of concern, ideology and means. The ruthlessly exploited and oppressed 21 tribal districts of West Bengal, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa which the Jharkhand movement wants to be brought together to constitute a separate state present the closest approximation to the neo-Marxist concept of 'internal colonialism.' But a biased and insensitive administration's tendency to treat the movement as being allied to Naxalism and recent murders of Morcha activists, particularly Nirmal Mahto, have thrown the JMM into a major crisis and there is some uncertainty as to whether it emerges as a regional party committed to peaceful and electoral modes of political action or explodes into insurrectionary violence15.



We are excluding from our analysis a multitude of short lived regional groups which were essentially single issue parties and faded out once the issues involved were resolved one way or the other. Thus the Plebiscite Front was launched by Mirza Afzal Beg a couple of years after Shiekh Abdullah was deposed and put into jail in 1953. It had a one-point programme - a call for a referendum under U.N. auspicies to determine the future of Jammu and Kashmir. The party lost its relevance when, in 1975, the Sheikh reached an agreement with the Union government. Thereupon the Front merged itself in the revised National Conference. Telangane Praja Samiti and Majlis-e-Iitehad-ul-Muslmeen were quite active during the late sixties but, before long, setded for the maintenance of safeguards like the mulki rules, rules for the people of the Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh. The Nav Vidharbha Andolan Samiti started with a demand for a separate state and ended up with the promised establishment of a development board for the backward Vidharbha sub-region of Maharashtra. We are also taking no account of quasi-regional splinter groups like Ajoy Mukherjee's Bangla Congress, Biju Patnaik's Utkal

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Congress or the Karnataka Kranti Ranga of Dev Raj Urs which were brought into being by dissident Congress leaders and collapsed after the founder died or found a more rewarding political anchorage or simply ran out of steam. Regionally-based fundamentalist organisations like the Jammat-i-Islami or Ummati-i-Islami of the Kashmir valley have no claim to be described as regional parties. They lack a truly regional focus and instead act as Pakistan's fifth columns with secession as their objective. Even regional parties whose status as such is in no doubt are not cut out of the same cloth. Some distinctions are easily identifiable. An important axis along which they diverge relates to shifts in their social horizons and in the reach of their political goals. The DMK, for instance started out as a caste-based party to project and defend the interests of the culturally-akin backward caste Dravid people of all the four south Indian states against Brahmin 'dominance'. Over time, as Barnett writes, "the movement narrowed culturally to include only the Tamil-speaking people, but broadened socially to include all castes and classes of Tamil-nadu, even Brahmans16." As for its political goal, the DMK began with a frankly secessionist aim demanding an independent Dravidsthan, later sealed it down to a soverign Tamilnad and finally reconciled itself to a reorganised and homogeneous state within the Indian Union. After ten years of insurgency followed by a decade-long uneasy and somewhat brittle truce, Laldenga's Mizo National Front took to the constitutional path by accepting statehood for Mizoram as a component unit of the Indian federation. Telugu Desam, just over four years old, has defined and retains its goal in terms of more autonomy for states and there is no indication of its being pushed towards a separatist posture. At the same time, it has steadily widened its social base and is no longer denounced as an instrument of Kamma interests17. Punjab's Akali Dal has, however, a unique and rather ambiguous position among regional parties. As in the case of others, ethnic or cultural nationalism forms a part of its ideological and strategic baggage but its 'nationalism' draws its inspiration and sustenance more from religion than from a regional identity. In fact, the kind of political ambidextrousness it practices gives it more of a Panthik than a regional profile. Its constricted understanding of cultural nationalism excludes from its ambit a vast chunk of Punjabis who have everything in common with Sikhs except religion. And this when no two other religions in the world have so much proximity in belief and ritual as Hinduism and Sikhism. As for its political goal, the Akali Dal has raised its sights from a Punjabi 'suba' which was conceded in 1966 to a political set-up which, as spelled out in the controversial



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Anandpur Sahib resolution, will guarantee bol bala or 'preeminence' for the Sikh community. There is some indirect indeterminate indication of a rethinking on the subject so far as the Longowal Akali Dal is concerned18. In a careful analysis of the Punjab (Barnala) government's memorandum to the Sarkaria Commission, Harish Puri points out the document's "categorical rejection of the growingly strident stress on 'Sikhs are a nation' thesis that underlies Akali Dal's political objectives and activities19." As the memorandum put it 20:

Nationality is a secural concept. It embraces all people speaking a given language irrespective of their religion, caste and beliefs, indeed, all those who share the sense of common and distinct identity.

Further, what sets the Akali Dal apart from other regional parties is its theo-political ideology which postulates complete inseparability of ,religion and politics in so far as it is religion that sanctifies the party's goals and legitimises the means adopted in pursuing them. For all other regional parties secularism is the bedrock of politics. As we have noted earlier, the National Conference does occasionally use appeals in the name of religion to mobilise the support of its Muslim followers in the Kashmir valley. This, however, only marginally affects its image but does not negate the party's basic commitment to secular values. By and large, other regional parties, too, draw a line between religion and politics. Regional parties in the north-east, including Asom Gana Parishad constitute a distinct group. They face special problems which largely shape their perceptions, perspectives and political strategies. The British policy of fencing off the entire region, except the plains of Assam, from the rest of India left behind a dubious legacy whose effects will take time to wear off. Lack of adequate communicational links and cultural/economic contacts with the rest of the country created a persisting feeling of psychological distance from New Delhi and Indians outside the region. Besides, inspite of repeated post-independence restructuring, most northeastern states carry a sizeable portfolio of internal problems relating to socio cultural integration, identity preservation and inter-state irredentist claims. The most emotive and apparently intractable problem has resulted from the successive waves and continuing trickle of immigrants and squatters—'outsiders' from other parts of the country and 'foreigners' from Bangladesh and Nepal. It is not surprising, therefore, that regionalism in the northeast has developed a strong, almost virulent, "sons-of-soil" syndrome. The relatively insular orientation of the northeast regional parties is clearly reflected in the collective articulation of

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such demands as the extension of 'inner line' regulations and benefits of article 371 (A) of the constitution to the entire region. Naturally, the pattern of their relations with the centre is considerably affected by the manner and the speed with which, in their perception, the latter responds to their concerns.



Regional Parties and the Political System

The growing presence and salience of regional parties is undoubtedly, the most outstanding, aspect of political development in India over the past few years. Barely six months after coming into existence, Telugu Desam Successfully stormed the Congress stronghold in Andhra Pradesh. The Asom Gana Parishad was formed in the fall of 1985 and was swept to power by the year end. In 1986, Laldenga signed an accord with the Union government, abjured insurgency and led his Mizo National Front to power in Aizwal. For some years now Congress has had an informal alliance with the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, and early this year it joined Farooq Abdullah's coalition government as a junior partner in Jammu and Kashmir.

Some of these regional parties - and, in our analysis, we have taken note of only those which have made it to political power have yet to establish their credentials and prove their durability conclusively. Asom Gana Parishad, for instance, has to give evidence of its ability to deal effectively with the problems of a polyglot state which, with its bewildering mix of races and languages, replicates India in miniature. It remains to be seen how far the party is able to heal and bind together the disruption of the Assamese mosaic23. Sikkim Sangram Parishad leader, Nar Bahadur Bhandari has been making unabashed overtures to Congress (I) Nevertheless, their bonafides have come to be generally accepted and it is no longer easy to sell the thesis that they are anti-national.

Regional parties have catalysed a realignment of political forces and their impact on the structure and, processof politics has been multi-directional and far-reaching. At least three distinct dimensions of what has been described as reginalisation of politics in india can be briefly indicated here. In the first place the political clout they have acquired poses the most powerful challenge the hitherto India's 'one-party donminance or 'one party plus' system. In 1967-69 the remshackle Samyukta Vidhyak Dal (S VD) governments which replaced the Congress in most northern states quickly collapsed under the weight of their own contradictions. At the centre, Indira Gandhi was able to bring off a

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remarkable cliff-hanging act until the 1971-72 elections restored her party to its hegemonic position. The Janata Party which in 1977, captured the Congress citadels in New Delhi and in the states of the Gangetic plains turned out to be a loosely fabricated agglomerate and its disparate and squabbling constituents did not take more than thirty months to break apart. And in 1980 the Congress - in its Congress (I) incarnation—was back in the driving seat at the centre and in all the states from which the Janata had ousted it. The situation to-day is basically different. Congress has already lost twelve states, seven of them to regional parties, and is passing through one of its worst intra-party crises.



In the challenge to the Congress (I) dominance at the centre that is now building up regional parties have a critically important role. It may be noted here that, taken together, they form a sizeable bloc in parliament and that Telugu Desam is the largest opposition party in Lok Sabha. It is not surprising, therefore, that it is also a front runner in the chase after a 'national' alternative to Congress (I).

Another area in which regional parties have a natural stake and are bound to make a strong impact is that of centre state relations. As the present writer has stated elsewhere24.

The cumulative impact of ... the regionalisation of political parties in India has been the cause as well as the effect, among other things, of the growing importance of the rural vote and the emergence of regionally oriented elites in state capitals and the districts. At the same time, most national-level leaders have become increasingly rooted in the politics of their states and are often known to promote the interests of their own regions even when this involves working against the federal centre. This is understandable. Big industrial and commercial Houses throw their weight on the side of the centre. It is from the central authorities that they have to secure licenses and fiscal concessions. Besides, their economic interests cut across state boundaries and they look upon the whole country as a single, integrated market. On the contrary, small industrialists, traders and, what is more important, the agricultural bourgeoisie have a greater stake in the state governments. The state capitals are their lobbying points. Their linkages with the state administrative machinery gives them a dominating influence on decision-making at the state level.

In view of the marked change in the ecology of Indian federalism, there is bound to be some redistribution of powers to reduce the financial dependence of the states on New Delhi. Demands for greater autonomy

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for the states range over a broad spectrum with the confederal model with a notional' centre depending on doles from the constituent units) sketched in the Anandpur Sahib resolution, taking the far out end. It seems hardly likely, the Sarkaria Commission notwithstanding, that the centre is going to be deprived of its primacy. What is more significant is a perceptible change that is taking shape on the ground. It is a change in the ambience rather than the legal framework of the centre-state interface. The states have always smarted at the centre's whiphold but it seems they are no longer willing to be beggars seeking largesse. Instead, they insist on a redefinition of the existing equation and refuse to be treated as irresponsible and erring wards in constant need of Big Brother's guidance and control. Occasional confrontations between New Delhi and this or that state prove merely that states are coming of age. In other words, what is happening is the emergence of a new and more 'federal' political culture and, in consequence, a two-way change in the form and idiom of centre-state relations.



It is no longer uncommon for MPs from a particular state, irrespective of their party affiliations, collectively lobbying with central author-ides on behalf of their home state. Bhajan Lal lost the chief ministership of Haryana when his publicly expressed opposition to some provisions of the Punjab accord became an embarrassment to the centre. The centre, on its part, is beginning to show signs of being more responsive to state sensitivities. Thus, after some shadow boxing, New Delhi worked out a common approach with the left front government of West Bengal in dealing with the Gorkha land issue. At the same time, there is considerable and growing evidence of regional parties and their leaders shed-ding their 'parochialism and showing an awareness of wider horizons where all-India issues are concerned. N.T. Rama Rao may no longer be as keen on his 'Bharat Desam' project as he once was. However, he takes care to register his presence on extra-regional and national levels as often as possible; -the occasion may be a gathering of opposition leaders or an election campaign in Assam or Haryana. Particularly significant is the stand he took on the state autonomy at the recent Surajkund conclave of nine opposition parties. His was a plea for "the restoration of co-operative federalism enshrined in the constitution" and "recognition of the legitimate place of the states25." In essence, he was asking for a partnership model of federal relations in place of the, patron-client pattern that is actually in operation. More importantly, it shows that on questions of concern to the country as a whole regional parties do not necessarily, and at all times, look at things through regional blinkers.

We may conclude with shorthand comment on the limited but none-

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the less positive impact of regional parties at the base of our polity. The impact has Been limited since, given their class character which is much the same as that of Congress and other non-left parties, basic restructuring of existing socio-economic relations is not on their agenda. Ritual homage to social justice and holistic claims on behalf of their regions notwithstanding, regional parties have, by and large, a status quoist social philosophy with some top dressing of welfarist tokenism and populist gimmicks.



Within the liberal-democratic frame of reference, however, regional, parties can be said to have made politics more competitive and popular participation in the political process more extensive at the grass roots. So long as the Congress held a virtually undisputed way in the political arena, the party's vote bank' strategy rested on the mediation of local caste and community leaders who could deliver the rural vote at the hustings. Regional parties have inducted in the districts a new breed of sub-elites who have risen from the soil, speak in an idiom the people understand and have, as a result narrowed gap. This is a positive gain and is clearly reflected in the marked rise in voter turn-out at the polls in states where electoral contest has become keener in proportion to the displacement of the Congress from a position of monopoly, and in there invigoration of panchayati raj and urban local self-government institutions.

There is, finally the activisation, slow but growing of a process of rethinking on the problem of nation-building in India. Regional parties-have helped this rethinking by compelling attention to the need for coming

to terms with the territorial identity26" they articulate and defend. The outcome is a gradually unfolding new vision of an all-India 'national' identity which gathers up but does not supersede the country's smaller 'national' identities. When the nationalist in a Hurry calls upon minorities and regional collectivities to join the 'national mainstream' he does have a point What is" more important is the emerging perspective in which the mainstream is seen not as mighty waterway of which the majority community is the sole custodian and which flows exclusively through the Hindi heartland and into which all religious, linguistic and regional sub-streams must flow and lose themselves. In the new perspective the national mainstream can have no meaning except as a confluence in which the hindu tributory is only one in the many , albeit the largest. Regional parties may well claim some credit for winning a measure of legitimacy for the view that, given our plural social structure, nation-building has to be a process of aggregation not assimilation

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NOTES AND REFERENCES

1. As Panikkar has put it "not one can conceive of India except in terms of the great regions ... Any other image of India would be something abstract without flesh and blood". The Foundations of New India, London. Rasheeduddin Khan describes India as "an aggregation of regions and sub-regions". "Political and Socio-cultural Determinants of Indian Federalism" in K.R. Bombwall (Ed.) National Power and State Autonomy, Meerut, 1978, p. 122

2. Despite linguistic homogeneity, identity consciousness exists only partially or not at all in some states of what is described as the Hindi 'heartland'. Of Madhya Pradesh, for example, Wilson writes, "no state in India has fewer bonds underlying its unity and it can with truth be said that the parts of Madhya Pradesh" in Myron Weiner (Ed.), State Politics in India, Princeton, 1968, p. 128. The descriptions fit Uttar Pradesh even better.

3. For a succint account of the factors which have contributed towards the delineation and development of regional identities see the Punjab Government's Memorandum Submitted to the (Sarkaria) Commission on Centre-State Relations, Chandigarh, April 1987, p. 1 The memorandum points out that "India's society has a multi-national profile" (p.2) and that "with the reorganisation of states on a linguistic basis, these are no longer mere administrative sub-divisions of the country. These are now deliberately reorganised homelands of different linguistic-cultural groups . . . (which) "are in fact growing into distinct nationalities", (p. 3). For a more extended though rather slanted, account see Selig S. Harrison, India, the Most Dangerous Decades, London, 1960, chaps. I and n.


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