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Coalition politics and regional identities

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta

Political fault-lines cannot always be easily defined in India. There has been a fragmentation of the polity but coalitions also persist, perhaps because certain sections perceive themselves as having gained from a process of groups ostensibly speaking for them. This also explains the emergence of regionalism and the power of local parties, says Paranjoy Guha Thakurta.

Regionalism raising its hand in the era of coalition politics.

WHEREAS many individuals belonging to the two largest political parties in India — the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Indian National Congress — often argue that the country's polity is essentially bipolar and that smaller parties have no alternative but to align themselves with one or the other "poles", the reality on the ground is far more complex. As is evident from the situation currently prevailing in the country's largest State, Uttar Pradesh, political fault-lines cannot always be easily defined in India. It can be contended that the process of fragmentation of the polity is not yet over and that smaller parties, including regional and caste-based outfits, do not necessarily have to become appendages of either the BJP or the Congress.

A common fallacy that is related to the conviction that India's polity is essentially bipolar is the notion that the decline of the Congress and the rise of the BJP bear almost a one-to-one correspondence. The rise of the BJP is seen as a process of the party occupying the centrist political space vacated by the Congress. Though this viewpoint is common, the reality is far more complicated. It is true that the period that witnessed the fastest growth of the BJP as an electoral force has coincided with the phase of the most rapid decline of the Congress — that is perhaps why the two phenomena are seen as correlated. However, what such a viewpoint misses is the fact that in areas where the Congress has been almost completely marginalised, it has been displaced not so much by the BJP as by smaller regional parties.

The marginalisation of the Congress in UP has not led to the BJP becoming a party with unquestioned dominance in the State. On the contrary, the party was reduced to third position in UP, behind the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, after the February 2002 Assembly elections. In Bihar, the Congress has been reduced to a marginal presence over the last decade-and-a-half, but its decline has not led to the BJP becoming the dominant party. Mr Laloo Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal or its forerunner, the Janata Dal, were the main agents of the erosion of the Congress party's vote banks while the Samata Party — itself a breakaway group of the erstwhile JD — has a strength in Bihar that is equal to if not more than the BJP.

Could UP and Bihar represent the exception to the rule that the BJP grows to fill the vacuum created by a shrinking Congress? Not quite. In Orissa, Assam and Karnataka, for instance, the BJP has grown rapidly, more often than not by consolidating the anti-Congress political forces. It is another matter that other anti-Congress groups — such as the Janata Dal (United) in Karnataka, the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa and the Asom Gana Parishad in Assam — have at some stage decided that rather than compete with the BJP for the Opposition space, they could gain by aligning with the party.

If one looks at the period between the late-1960s and the mid-1980s, there were already signs of the Congress losing ground gradually to regional parties. The most obvious example would be Tamil Nadu, where the Congress today has little choice but to align with one or the other of the two main Dravidian parties in the State — the DMK or the AIADMK. But Tamil Nadu is not the only example.

Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, traditional strongholds of the Congress, witnessed similar trends even if the process did not lead to the complete marginalisation of the Congress. In Andhra Pradesh, the Telugu Desam Party rose from almost nowhere to become a powerful challenge to the Congress in the mid-1980s and has remained the main contender for power with the Congress. Similarly, in Maharashtra it was the rise of the Shiv Sena rather than the BJP, which first raised questions about just how firm the Congress' grip on power in the State was.

In other words, the decline of the Congress has not automatically resulted in the rise of the BJP; put differently, the political tussle between the two largest political parties in India has not been a zero sum game in which the losses of one inevitably results in the other gaining by filling a so-called political vacuum.

Several political scientists have analysed the phenomenon of `identity politics'. Sudipto Kaviraj (Contemporary Crisis of the Nation-State? Edited by John Dunn, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers 1995) contends that the benefits of the Nehruvian model of economic development remained confined to a section consisting of the "bourgeoisie, high managerial elites, state bureaucracy and agrarian magnates" and that this fostered resentment in the vast majority of the population.

It is this resentment, he suggests, that has been tapped by various political groups leading to the fragmentation of the polity. Dr Kaviraj also argues that the resentment against the elite extends to a rejection of all that the elite stood for, including the notion of the Indian identity over-riding sub-national identities.

He writes: "Since this elite speaks the language of national integration and unity, the latter (movements of the non-elite) speak the negative language of localism, regional autonomy, small-scale nationalism, in dystopias of ethnicity — small xenophobic, homogeneous, political communities.

"This does violence to the political imagination of the Indian nation-state which emphasised diversity as a great asset and enjoined principles of tolerance as the special gift of Indian civilisation... The world of political possibilities in India seems to be simplifying into the frightening choice before most of the modern world's political communities: to try to craft imperfect democratic rules by which increasingly mixed groups of people can carry on together an unheroic everyday existence, or the illusion of a permanent and homogeneous, unmixed single nation, a single collective self without any trace of a defiling otherness."

The fragmentation of India's polity is undoubtedly an outcome of the feeling among very large sections of the population that they had been left out of the development process. What is interesting, however, is that this resentment has not always manifested itself through parties and groups that claim to be speaking for the excluded sections of society.

sqThe TDP, for instance, appeals to the Telugu identity across Andhra Pradesh. Clearly, it is not the case that all Telugus have been left out of the development process. Similarly, nobody can seriously argue that the Shiv Sena's appeal to a Maharashtrian identity arises from the feeling that all of Maharashtra has been denied the benefits of economic growth.

Obviously, it has been possible for such parties as the TDP and the Shiv Sena to use the resentment of specific sections of those speaking Telugu and Marathi and channel it along lines of their choosing.

The fragmentation of India's polity, then, can be seen as the result of various sections deciding that an informal coalition like the Congress had failed to serve their interests. But what explains the tendency for coalitions to persist? It could well be the case that these sections perceive themselves as having gained from a process of explicit coalitions in which groups ostensibly speak for them.

It is pointless, in this context, to debate whether Yadavs as whole have actually gained because of the SP or the RJD, whether Dalits are better off since the BSP was formed or whether Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra have performed better after the formation of the TDP and the Shiv Sena. What matters is the popular perception among the relevant sections that their interests are being taken care of better than in the past.

(The author is Director, School of Convergence, International Management Institute, New Delhi and a journalist with over 25 years of experience in various media - print, Internet, radio and television. This article is based on a section of a book co-authored by him and Shankar Raghuraman: "A Time of Coalitions: Divided We Stand," published by Sage Publications. He can be contacted at

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