India: the curious case of a new pan-regionalism

India must realize that large republics, with a strong federal structure and the vibrancy of diverse and even conflicting regional and sub regional interests, make for a colourful democracy, a better home for liberty and a safer haven against tyranny.

To define the diversity of India, poet and critic A. K. Ramanujan once cited the instance of what the Irishman had said about trousers. On the question of whether the trousers were singular or plural, he said,“Singular at the top and plural at the bottom.” Historian Sunil Khilnani, the well-known author of The Idea of India, disputes the view, saying Indian nationalism even before independence was plural at the top: “a dhoti with endless folds.” Given dhoti’s popularity as a pan-Indian traditional garment, the idea sounds remarkable as an emblematic projection of the country’s diversity. Since independence, a major concern in the nation-building exercise of New Delhi could be to keep hold of the dhoti, ostensibly a much looser wear than well-belted trousers.

Yet, although such diversity allows striking poetics, the translation of the same into political democracy and policy-making remains a matter of contention. For India has been ruled for more than five decades by an out and out dynastic party, the Indian National Congress, that claims all the credit for giving India her freedom from the Raj. On the other pole is a front led by a party that seeks to restore ‘the great Hindu civilization’ snatched away from the ‘Indian indigenous people’, by ‘turbulent foreign invasions’. Although the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that ruled India from 1998 to 2004 has evolved to be the other major national party with broadened focus and somehow pluralist socio-economic vision, its core support base is still the right  - conservative Hindu -nationalist network of Sangh Parivar. As such, the country’s political fate at the centre, barring a few exceptions, ever since independence more or less, has swung between the dogmatic antics of the Nehru-Gandhi clan and the tireless promoters of a Hindu-revisionist past. However, that may no longer be the case in the years to come.

A pan-regionalist boom

As the emphatic verdict came out in the first week of March from the state level assembly elections in four Indian states, a new pattern is beginning to emerge. In fact, the political climate in New Delhi, ever after the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) came back to power in 2009, has been that of a daily plebiscite. Now with the new state-level verdicts of the last two and a half years, the message is straight  - pan-regionalism is all the trend in India.

So here are some facts. In the recently-held assembly polls, the Congress was routed to just 28 seats in the 403-strong Uttar Pradesh Assembly by Samajwadi Party with a sweeping mandate of 224. This state that could have been the world’s fifth most populous country was for the previous five years ruled by another regional party (Bahujan Samaj Party). In Punjab, another politically crucial state, the Congress that had eyed a cakewalk was devastated by the Sikh-nationalist Shiromani Akali Dal (allied with BJP), reinstating the incumbent government. In Uttarakhand, the Congress managed a slight lead over BJP with a single seat. While trouble-torn northeastern state of Manipur remained its sole solace, it again made way for BJP in Goa.

Take a look at some of India’s major states - and they are now all run by regional parties. Adding to the examples above, in West Bengal - it’s the Mamata Banerjee led Trinamool Congress that trounced the more than three decades-long communist rule last year (although with the help of the Congress); in Tamil Nadu it’s the Jayalalitha led AIADMK, a Tamil regional front that swept to victory defeating the Congress-backed DMK last year; in Odisha it’s the Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal(BJD), constantly in power since 2000;  in Bihar, Nitish Kumar created history with stable governance that led his party the Janata Dal United (JDU) to a second thumping mandate in November 2010, roasting Congress to just 4 seats in a 243-strong assembly. In Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, the ruling Congress is in a perennial crisis while the regional parties therein like the Marathi nationalist Shiv Sena (an ally of the BJP), the Nationalist Congress Party(NCP) , the Telegu Desham Party(TDP) and the autonomist Telengana Rasthra Samithi(TRS) with increased strength are eyeing the national picture. While other bigger states like Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and Gujarat are being ruled by BJP; in more cases than one and especially in Gujarat, it functions as a regional party strongly under the command of its Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

The ruling coalition UPA is all at sea for more reasons than one. This has been happening for quite some time now. Last year, the Congress government was in tatters as the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement drew to the streets millions of Indians, substantially damaging the credibility of the system. The Anna wave is no longer at a crest now; nevertheless the ghost that had haunted UPA is gone. And the tempest comes even from its allies. While the government keeps counting the number for its survival to avoid a midterm poll, the regional parties have started exercising phenomenal influence at the national level. Dubbed as the ‘Angry Federalists’, they stalled the centre’s National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) invoking principles of federalism, rejected the Lokayukta provisions of the Lokpal Bill, opposed foreign direct investment in India’s multi-brand retail sector and even went as far as to block legislation on land acquisition.   

The picture would tempt any psephologist to make projections for the coming General Elections in 2014. However, it takes me back to the intriguing question of the endlessly folded dhoti as a rich metaphor for India’s diversity. The lacuna of innovative federalist politics left by the national parties has been filled up by new regional bosses. If the diversity of this ‘impossible’ (read incredible) country was not a myth, it is increasingly finding expression in the growing strength of the regional parties that are basically local with local concerns. The former Uttar Pradesh (UP) CM Mayawati may address a rally in the distant Nagaland; Trinamool Congress under Mamata’s dictum may win a few seats in Manipur; but by and large their parties represent regional aspirations in various forms - in the former case, a voice for the oppressed Dalits in UP, in the latter case a Bengali revivalist party, seeking greater says at the centre.

The issues raised by a Sikh-centric Akali Dal or any other such front were bound to be at loggerheads with the Congress (Congress was instrumental in the massacre of thousands of Sikhs in 1984 following Indira Gandhi’s death). The idea of a Hindu nationalist political space by BJP will never find a pathway in a predominantly Muslim Kashmir valley where even the ruling National Conference (regional party again) is spending sleepless nights. History reminds us how as far back as in 1967, the Congress was permanently ousted from the political realm in Tamilnadu which has for five decades seen an exchange of power only between regional parties. It was the perceived imposition of Brahminical Hindi hegemony in its cultural life that provoked into being Tamil secessionism and later animated political subnationalism. In the case of Assam, heartland to India’s tea and oil production, New Delhi’s political injustice and economic exploitation played a central role in the mobilization of regionalist and at times separatist politics. On the other hand, diversity is so fierce in India that states like Nagaland have never considered themselves to be a part of the republic.

If this is the case, one might revise John Stuart Mill’s view that democracy is “next to impossible” in multiethnic societies and completely impossible in linguistically divided countries. While Indian democracy survived in large measure, Atul Kohli, a scholar on ethnonationalism, provides a better and perhaps precise angle -“democracy in developing countries tends to be as much a source of, as a solution to power conflicts”. Regional politics in India is an amalgamation of a complex set of factors that shine a light on such power conflicts. Most interestingly, the ideologies of these parties constantly evolve with time. Take for instance, the Samajwadi Party (Samajwadi means socialist) that made its base with a peculiar north Indian idea of socialism - Hindi vernacularism and upward mobility for backward castes. But its recent win in Uttar Pradesh is credited to its new young chief Akhilesh Yadav, who, breaking the old party-line vehemently campaigned for computer literacy and English education. Similarly in Punjab, the Akalis are no longer the old school Sikh theocrats; instead their central focus has shifted to good governance and development politics. In the other case, the national parties at times try to appropriate their positions in unique pockets. Such instances include the BJP allying with the tribal rights party Jharkhand Mukti Morcha in Jharkhand to form the government; Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi (of the Congress) vocally flirting with soft Hindutva in the last year’s assembly election, at clear odds with his party’s blatant pro-minority stand.

What next? A third front?

As often is the case, election verdicts stimulate a periodic frenzy in the Indian media. New speculations and new theories are out. The focus is all on a Third Front that will be comprised of all regional parties and may as well take the Left parties along with it. This front, in fact exists unofficially and imaginatively as a pressure group within the parliament. A non-Congress, non-BJP front that is secular to the core may of course sound like a refreshing idea. The Congress has historically resorted to various definitions of secularism, sometimes flirting with fundamentalist ideologies at the cost of another religiosity, some other time, most unashamedly appeasing their ‘Muslim votebanks’ with absolutely non-secular rhetorical politics. The BJP on the other hand explicitly promotes Hindu religiosity as the ideal Indian ‘way of life’. It is yet to stand clear against the allegations of its indirect involvement in the Gujarat riots that saw the killing of some 2000 Muslims in 2002.

The truth, however inconvenient is that a third front always comes third in the elections! In 1996, the combined strength of the regional parties that made up the United Front had failed to exceed that of either BJP or the Congress. The national coalitions led by H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral  in the late 1990s were marked for instability, that could be brought down anytime on the political whimsies of a single ally. What goes missing in such coalitions is peace and cohesive policy making. A package in favour of Karnataka may ignite the allies from Kerala: a leftist economic policy would invite opposition from the pro-market forces.

That finally leaves the evolved Indian electorate with two options. The first one is a new national federalist front with substantial representation from all regions, with a cohesive, secular, pro-people vision and especially committed to backward regions. Traditional wisdom suggests that such a front will remain a castle in the air at least for the near future. Reasons are simple. The most obvious being,  the emergence of a new national party requires the annihilation of either the BJP or the Congress, if it is not to hang in the balance like a third front. However, the two national parties still have extensive strength across India, leaving little room for yet another pan-India party. Many of the regional parties are even running state governments with direct or outside support from these national parties, although the marriages are breaking up.

There’s another serious problem. Consider this. Larger states like Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar have 80, 48, 42, 42 and 40 seats in Loksabha, India’s national parliament. But India’s long-troubled, conflict-ridden states, especially the ones in the Northeast are abysmally underrepresented. Nagaland, home to one of the world’s longest running separatist movements, has just 1 seat. Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh too share only 1 seat each whereas Manipur and Meghalaya can at best send 2 representatives to the parliament.

Hence it so happens that a national party too acts as a region-specific front in New Delhi with its obvious bias towards states that have numbers. Ironically, in a pan-regionalist front at the centre, like the much talked about Third Front, the states that may become the maximum casualty are the ones that are in desperate need of healthy regionalist voices to elevate them from underrepresentation. Who will look to 1 member-strong Sikkim’s or 2 member-strong Goa’s concerns, when there would be so much else to bargain among the squabbling leaders from large states in such a coalition? 

Towards a new idea of India!

So what exactly is the difference between the regional and the national? India is a polity and an entity that grew and strengthened during the course of an anti-colonial struggle. There have always been ideational debates over the idea of India, someone famously calling it:“India is a state of mind.” The nationalist elite that politically led India to her freedom, although it came from different backgrounds, had one thing in common - they strikingly believed in a united idea of India. However, while India, as a newly independent political space was drifting from the colonial hangover to become a modern post-colonial state; politics, with the great triumph of democracy, embedded the grass roots of Indian society.

In fact, that very triumph of democracy gave voice to a myriad concerns that saw the emergence of a whole new spectrum of political organizations and leaders. The postcolonial leaders were no longer the old school nationalists that had put the country together in the first place. The deepening of democracy ensured that new leaders came to power representing a particular community, tribe, caste, religion and region. A Jat leader from Haryana will by all means fight for the reservation of his community at the national level, even defying his party line; almost a month back an Indian union minister of the Congress, openly dared the central government to hang him for fighting for the institutional  reservation of Muslims.

In the new coalition era in India, there are of course hazards in such politics, where the numerically strong allies will increasingly assert their preferences with supreme indifference to the welfare of the other marginalized regions and peoples. Coalition politics itself has come to be known as “Collision politics.” Such action at times might lead to disruptions in cohesive governance and socio-economic policy making, when securing one’s own political interests becomes the priority for the allies. Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee, the nightmarish ally of the Congress at the centre, in the last two weeks went hammer and tongs all out to demand a rollback of the train fare hikes, primarily to woo her local voter-base in West Bengal. A few days back,  DMK, the cultural nationalist Tamil party (that has been ruling Tamilnadu alternatively with AIADMK), again an ally of the Congress in New Delhi, has forced the UPA government to vote against Sri Lanka (a friendly neighbour with India) in a UN resolution on human rights violations during the civil war in 2009

Things become all the more chaotic when one finds 40 political parties in the Indian parliament today. A large number of these parties came into existence with legitimate demands from underrepresented regions and backward peoples. These parties claim to represent regional interests with moderate success but the real issues in such central-state, central-region and central-people confrontations can barely be addressed by them in the present centralized set up of the nation state. At the end of the day, these parties too, succumb to political compulsions, most times becoming agents of noise rather than that of stability.  While there can be a healthy equilibrium between regional and national parties, the principal focus should rather shift to the structure, that is the root of allreal movement.

There emerges a second and the most important option for an India that can no longer be ignored at the wake of this new pan-regionalism. It is radical but worth implementing before things get out of hand. That is that India must now fulfil its six decades old promise of federalism to the truest extent. Ever since the country became a republic, there was a systematic erosion of the federal content that has fuelled anger and loss in diverse political dimensions. The Sarkaria commission, set up in 1983, recommended among other things, that enforcement of Union laws, particularly those relating to the concurrent list, be secured through the machinery of states. Its reports largely remain unfulfilled. On the other hand, misuse of the constitutional articles such as 355 and 356 has led to an overbearing New Delhi’s abrupt dismissal of elected state governments by regional parties. Then there are far more inflammatory issues in India’s complex political landscape such as financial, administrative and legislative disputes that need to be resolved in a federal framework. Turbulent protest movements, whether they are socio-economic or environmental, have occurred in India’s history, largely due to a gradual manipulative encroachment of state subjects by the centre. Demands of greater redistributive intervention, from regions that felt exploited, found strength in extremist militant movements. The one that India sees as its ‘greatest internal security threat’- the Maoist Movement in the heart of Central India strongly echoes such voices.

There is a subnationalist dimension to the debate as well. Many of the regional parties, covertly or overtly exhibit subnationalist tendencies which can change from time to time. In his last election campaign, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar increasingly asserted a “Bihari Asmita” (subnational Bihari consciousness). This was remarkably significant because for the first time, the socio-cultural willingness to be seen distinctly from the others in the North Indian Hindi Heartland was articulated in Bihar’s democratic politics. Similar rhetoric works wonders especially in the politics of states like Assam, Maharashtra, Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh (the Telengana region) and Kashmir, where cultural or linguistic nationalism is a dominant mobilizing force. Much of such politics shares greater autonomist visions, whether socio-cultural or socio-economic in nature. Indeed throughout postcolonial history, newer ideas of India have emerged in different locations of the country, where the regional vision of itself was central.Notably, such subnational or regional challenges could also be seen as a challenge to a ‘Hindi hegemonist’ centralized idea of India, seeking to replace monopoly with pluralist multi-cultural visions.

Political scientist Sanjib Baruah, the pre-eminent scholar on conflict and Northeast India, too argues for a restructured federalism in the case of such durable tensions between subnationalism and pan-Indianism. In his well acclaimed book, India Against Itself, assessing the turbulent politics in Assam, he proves how a decentralized form of governance and strong federalism could have averted violence and much of the secessionist movement that had rocked Assam for three decades. However he finds out that in the case of the troubled Northeast, federalism simply meant creation of more states, without restructured economic policy. This he terms ‘Cosmetic Federalism’, where the space is ‘nationalized’ with little likelihood of incorporating local visions of the future. As a result, Northeast India is still an enduring theatre of low intensity separatist guerrilla war. Indian Army atrocities and human rights violations deserve an an essay of their own…

As regional parties dominate the landscape, Indian democracy should claim success in this upsurge of pan-regionalism. But seemingly, this upsurge is perhaps more focused on petty manipulations over the 2014 General Elections or maybe a midterm poll. If that becomes the case, India will surely lose a great opportunity to modify and deepen its democracy by revisiting its promised federalism. History’s lesson that catastrophe follows when a strong centralized state wants to hold on to the ‘illusion of power’, was most emphatically vindicated by the collapse of Soviet Union.

India cannot afford to live with that illusion. For it must realize that a large and loosely decentralised federation with all the vibrancy of diverse and even conflicting regional and sub regional interests, make for a colourful democracy, a better home for liberty and a safer haven against tyranny. This perhaps is the time to liberalize, pluralize and modernize the idea of India, if it must not go against itself! 

About the author

Tanmoy Sharma is a writer based in New Delhi. He writes on politics, society and culture. Contact tanmoysharma91@gmail.com .