[ Daily News and Analysis, 25 Nov 2013 ; Millenium Post, 27 Nov 2013 ; New Age (Dhaka), 28 Nov 2013 ; Echo of India, 29 Nov 2013 ]
If you are one of those who think that English language television channels headquartered in and around Delhi present a reliable picture of the subcontinent, it is time to take a serious reality check. Such and other Delhi-centric views would have you believe that the coming Lok Sabha election of the Indian Union is some sort of a boxing match between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi and that the sentiments of the people are neatly divided between the Indira Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). These 2 parties distinguish themselves from others by the influence Delhi-based operators have on their policy and workings. Many ‘think-tanks’ that have sprouted up in Delhi, staffed with well-heeled ‘analysts’ with opaque connections to these 2 parties. Puncture one of these ‘tanks’ and what gushes forth is predictable – a lamentation about how the Indian Union cannot be left to anything but ‘national’ parties. The combined chorus of Delhi-based policywallahs, mediawallahs, academics, defence contractors, security apparatchiks and other glittering-shady characters has one tune – there is no choice beyond the Cong and the BJP. Lobbyists and pimps of all hues have invested hard in parties that are operated from Delhi. Each of these sectors has their own reasons to sing that song – but their combined howl has a terrific effect that has the power to move people. Which is precisely why they do the familiar singing when elections are near.
Let me put this cheerleading for the ‘national’ parties in some perspective. For the longest time, a single ‘national’ party ruled the Indian Union uninterruptedly. Since 1989, governments have essentially formed by a national party with a pound-of-flesh arrangement with some others. The national party makes policy while the coalition ‘partners’ keep mum and take their cut. This arrangement is at the heart of the present United Progressive Alliance (led by the Indira Congress) and the National Democratic Alliance (led by the Bharatiya Janata Party). The National Front and United Front governments were notable exceptions where parties with diverse regional origins came together to form policy. The Indian Union is supposedly a federal union – which is an arrangement in which the constituent units (the states) and Delhi govern together.
Over the decades since partition of 1947, Delhi has consistently and systematically encroached on the rights of the states, by its ‘directives’, arm-twisting opponents or simply by using super-majorities of the Congress years and now increasingly by the unholy alliance on certain matters between the two nationals, Cong and BJP. Whereas centralization of executive power has made the Indian Union less democratic, it has also made the removal of entrenched elites harder. No wonder most members of parliament own property in Delhi and their progeny increasingly live there. On the other hand, the regional parties have been steadfast in their defense of the principle of federalism – as the recent stances by the Trinamool Congress, Biju Janata Dal and others on the issue of opposing the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) clearly show. It is majorly due to the decline of the national parties that today it is not easy to use the kalo ain called Article 356 to remove a democratically elected state government. Balancing the over-centralization that has occurred over the last few decades needs an agenda for true federalism that can be supplied most muscularly by parties that consider their own state as the ‘centre’. Only such formations can demand exclusive state rights over their own resources and revenue. In the absence of economic autonomy of the states, ad-hocism and pound-of-flesh favouritism will keep some states happy and some states neglected. Delhi will corner disproportionate resources and subsidies anyways.
The continued use of the term ‘regional’ has another goal. This is to paint certain groups as hindrances to the speedy march of the Indian Union. ‘Regional’ has become a bad word. But the reality is that most of us (barring some post-liberalization yuppie urbanites) are not ashamed to be Tamils, Marathis, Bengalis, Oriyas and no other identity, real or imagined, can displace that.
What is the scope of these ‘regional’ parties in the global perspective? The Trinamool Congress got more votes in 2009 Lok Sabha than the victorious Tories got in the UK parliamentary elections of 2010. The DMK got more votes than the ruling Conservative party of Canada got in their 2011 federal election. Consider this. Post-partition, no national party has won an absolute majority of votes, ever. Also consider this. Even if I add up the 2 national parties, they have won less than 50 percent votes in 3 of the last 5 Lok Sabha elections. By concentrating simply on these 2 nationals, we stand to lose sight of the diverse and substantial political currents that represent the subcontinental reality. The Indian Union is a federal union. To make it a more democratic union, Delhi needs to be kept in leash by the states. The over centralized, Delhi-controlled India must die so that the Union of India may live.