[ Daily News and Analysis, 23 September 2012 ]
Irrespective of how this battle ends, the rules of engagement have possibly changed for some time to come. The Trinamool, Bengal’s political behemoth, has decided to quit the Union cabinet, opposing the decision of allowing FDI in multibrand retail, subsidy reduction in LPG and diesel. This may also mean an end of its relationship with the ruling Congress(I), but that is yet unknown. Beyond number games and the longevity of the present Union government and its policies, certain happenings may affect politics in the times to come.
The foremost among these is the Trinamool’s unmaking of the typical role of a regional second fiddle. In the largely bipolar contemporary electoral political scene of the Indian Union, the Congress(I) and the BJP have come to represent poles around which other groups ought to coalesce. The expected role of such alliance partners is to generally stay out of macro policy decisions of the ‘national’ and ‘international’ import. There are entrenched and well-heeled Delhi-types to take care of those things – thank you very much. In return for looking away or nodding passively, they gain the right to haggle over the size of their booty – this ranges from the apparently selfless like outlays for specific provinces to opportunities to help themselves like ‘juicy’ ministry births and crony deals. It would be a mistake to see these as necessary evils that the righteous ‘national’ parties have to put up with. Only the ideologically blinkered would see it this way. Rather they are pay-offs to ‘pesky’ but necessary, ‘regional’ forces that are needed in the era of coalitions so that the right to the largest share of the spoil can be ensured beyond doubt. The regionals that are party to government are not expected to veto broad policy. It is this rule of the game that Trinamool has broken.
Previously, the Trinamool has demanded its pound of flesh; its choice of cuts – shank or sirloin – it has haggled over such things. Those things were, however, rarely the issues over which the Trinamool has been known to threaten and did not figure in its list of reasons for quitting the cabinet. Quite the opposite, actually. It has been most vociferous and contrarian on issues that are not Bengal-specific. The mock pretensions in its ‘All India’ prefix notwithstanding, the Trinamool Congress is a party of Bengal. In recent times, this is a ‘regional’ group whose political stance on ‘broader’ issues has come to be known at large. Its acute interest in these issues can partly be traced back to the contested political space it inhabits in Bengal, in opposition to the CPI(M). In an effort to cede no oppositional space to the Left Front even on what are its pet issues, the Trinamool has sought to posture along the line the Left would have, if the Trinamool were to play the role of a traditional regional party. Trinamool’s critical importance also partly stems from the specific power balance and numbers of the 15th Lok Sabha. So is this case of mould-breaking regionalism a particular phenomenon that happened due to an opportune combination of factors or might it have an afterlife? In this context, there are certain issues to consider.
In the magisterial-centre kind of ‘federalism’ that the Indian state has, in the absence of a strong ‘regionalist’ alliance, regional groups learn from each other – about pushing envelopes, about haggling tactics, about endearing Delhi-based fixers, about the timing of jumping ship. It is in this milieu that the Trinamool has gone where few have ever been but more importantly, it has shown that the journey is possible. Whether this attitude will be an infectious one or not will come to determine how the centre will hold in the Indian Union or really, what kind of a centre. After the Socialist camp’s fracture, the remnants of the Janata pariwar are essentially province-based formations, although they retain a nominal pan-Indian-ness. The 4 left parties being regionally limited as they are, their regional units (except their Delhi apparatchiks) have systematically internalized the posturing and anxieties that befit explicitly regional parties. Among the ‘non-national’, one mostly sees strong regionalist formations. The ecology of high policy has never factored in the opinions and strands that might emanate from the regional majority (though the majority is not constituted as such, as a bloc). For example, lobbyists for international financial and diplomatic interests have traditionally focused the nurturing of assets in the big two national parties, which together represent less than half of the people who voted. Not that the ‘left-out’ representatives would necessarily mind being nurtured themselves. This moment of brinkmanship by the Trinamool may be a flash in the pan and might ‘sag like a heavy load’, forgotten in time. Or does it explode? If the Trinamool has given anyone else ideas, funding Delhi-based ‘think-tanks’ may not suffice in the future.
A lot rests on the next Lok Sabha elections, whenever that happens. Whether the future of a seventh of humanity lies in the strengthening of variegated aspirations or towards a more homogenized one depends disproportionately on the performance of the Congress(I). If the combined vote of the two nationals dips below 45 per cent with the BJP vote share remaining steady or increasing, the rules of the pseudo-federalist game might have to be amended. The ‘nationals’ might do well to accept this possible future and learn to live with it from today. Its about time.