New Delhi: A robust BJP riding on Narendra Modi's popularity in two general elections has changed the game. Regional politics is in for a tough time, and this makes the battle more exciting.
But they are the 'spirited fighters'. However, do they lack the temperament of loving the nation or upholding principle-based politics? Are things so much personality-focused and fashioned just to win elections?
Even in recent five-state polls, they were vital stakeholders in most cases leaving Congress licking the wounds. Even in Assam, the AIUDF is a key player. Having contested only 20 seats, they won 16 making it an 80 per cent strike-rate. The Congress strike rate was just 31 per cent after winning only 29 seats out of 94 seats contested.
DMK won Tamil Nadu and Mamata-led Trinamool Congress is again in power in West Bengal – where the BJP had made significant grounds and here too the Congress acceptability has nosedived. Both the communists and the Congress could not open their accounts in this large state with 294 assembly seats.
But the communists did well to win over Kerala yet again and deprived Congress the 'conventional' change of guard of evey five years.
One can, thus, never say whether it is a ‘new beginning’ or the end of regional parties in India.
Just when the going is tough, the regional forces strike back. But often when things look so smooth and there is a beeline of PM-aspirants, they suffer huge losses. The truth of the matter is as long as social and regional inequalities or imbalances remain, the regional parties will remain on the scene. The old ones may get replaced by new leaders at times though.
Four regional parties – created after coming out of the ‘parent’ Congress party – the NCP of Sharad Pawar, Trinamool Congress of Mamata Banerjee, Y Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSR Congress and Telangana Rashtriya Congress (TRC) of K Chandrashekhar Rao are now in power in as many states. So much has been the ‘power’ of regional players that Akali veteran Surjit Singh Barnala almost became the Prime Minister in the mid-1990s. Luck favoured a mofussil protagonist like H D Deve Gowda (of then united Janata Dal) and his colleague I K Gujral, whose 'play safe' card gave him the post.
Even the characteristics of other regional parties – and original claimants to the Third Front - like TDP, Samajwadi Party and Janata Dal – have changed a lot. The TDP under N Chandrababu Naidu is passing through challenging times in more ways than one.
From token opponents of big brother’ national parties to true representatives of regional aspirations, small or regional parties are certainly more than kingmakers now. They are being wooed by the Left parties and Congress. At times, the BJP is also not far behind ready to strike deals.
Janata Dal (U) of Nitish Kumar is a reliable partner now for the saffron party though Shiv Sena has walked away from its embrace. In Uttar Pradesh, where assembly polls are due by March 2022, the roles of both the Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party and BSP of Mayawati have undergone a sea change.
In fact, Mayawati faces a crucial poll next year as BSP performance in the last assembly polls was dismal. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the BSP tally from UP was ‘zero’. A grand fall for a leader, who only seven years ago (in 2007) brought in social engineering with the Brahmin support base and had stormed to power in UP.
In the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, BSP admirers were perhaps not wrong to dream that ‘Behenji’ may become Prime Minister. CPI-M stalwart Prakash Karat had endorsed this view at a public rally. But in politics, nothing is permanent except change.
The Congress did unexpectedly well in 2009. In 2014, it was the Moditva phenomenon. In 2019 just before parliamentary polls, Samajwadi Party stalwart Mulayam Singh Yadav could smell the 'truth' and told Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Lok Sabha that he (Mulayam) was sure that the BJP-led NDA would return to power yet again.
And his words had turned prophetic. In 2014, the then BJP Rajnath Singh had told me that his party’s alliance with BSP in the 1990s with a six-month power-sharing formula was a blunder. “This alliance had harmed BJP’s prospects in Uttar Pradesh for years. I was one of the few to oppose such a move,” Rajnath had said.
Holding among them 123 seats in the 12th Lok Sabha or almost 24 per cent of popular vote-share, regional parties lived through ‘federalism’ in the real sense as they forged strategic poll alliances either with Congress or BJP, but not compromising their ideologies and self interests.
Of course, the regional parties did not let the national parties storm their strongholds. This was a healthy development, many thought as it was impossible in India’s vastness to have a system that is highly centralised.
“Either you accept it or learn the bitter way that the roles of regional parties cannot be underestimated,” George Fernandes, then the Samata Party chief, had said.
Likes of George Fernandes and even his compatriot, Nitish Kumar, used to say that regional representations could in effect bring decentralisation in real sense.
They will be again in focus in 2022 assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh, Manipur and Goa among others.
Some regional parties were born in the pre-independence era. The Jammu and Kashmir National Conference of Abdullahs was floated way back in 1938 by renaming a faction of the Muslim Conference by its founder Sheikh Abdullah. The present-day National Conference, however, came into being in 1975 after the Indira-Sheikh Abdullah Accord.