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Federalism & Regional Parties: TOWARDS BARGAINING DEMOCRACY, By Dr.S.Saraswathi, 4 April 2019 Print E-mail

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New Delhi, 4 April 2019

Federalism & Regional Parties


By Dr.S.Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


Regional political parties are now perceived collectively as a separate category playing the biggest role in 2019 General Election, compelling us to revise our understanding and assessment of both federalism and political parties in India. Party politics is convincingly proving that the federal system in our country is not merely a constitutional arrangement to rule the multi-lingual, multi-cultural nation, but is actually a political process to keep together a conglomeration of varied interests holding together for a larger purpose beyond their individual capacity to manage.

The units in the Indian federation need a strong Centre and the Centre wants cooperating States.  How this interdependence is actually played out makes up the political and presently the electoral process.  

The primary reason for emergence of regional political parties is the reality of the existence of regional needs and interests that a national party cannot or is not inclined to fulfil. Similarly, sub-regional issues have given rise to State parties, and local territorial or sectional issues to smaller political groupings and pressure groups -- all in recognition of the overwhelming acceptance that politics is primarily and is the prime driving force in society.    

In the early years after Independence, central concerns of Parliament revolved around the federal organisation of the polity. Linguistic reorganisation of States was thought of as a solution to accommodating all regional aspirations within national unity. Federal thrust was manifest in linguistic demands and agitations that pushed back several important national priorities.   Language appropriated such disproportionate political attention that it was not realised that language was only one among numerous federal problems.

A number of regional parties claiming regional identity and aspiring State autonomy in the federal structure became a prominent feature of Indian politics in the 1970s.  Parties catering to special caste and group interests also surfaced all over the country from the 1980s. Then onwards, Indian polity presented a curious mixture of diversity and identity concerns which got   into electoral and parliamentary politics through proliferation of political groups and parties at various levels. Globalisation has no impact on localisation of parties.

This development, synchronising with the decline of one-party dominance, gave rise to coalition politics. Parties had to pool their strength not only to capture power, but even to provide effective Opposition.

A new phase in federal politics started, accompanied with growth in the number of parties fighting elections. From a principle of distribution of powers and an administrative device to govern a nation of diversities, there came a shift in the focus of politics from integration to autonomy and self-interest of States.  

The calculation of State parties in conformity with the very reason of their existence increasingly tended to be regionalised while extending support to a national party at the national level. As a result, some of them restrict their interest and learning to State-related issues and manipulate national politics with regional point of view.

No State, however big, and no regional party, however strong, could have a decisive say in federal affairs. There is a relative equality of federal units that is being asserted along with greater focus of their representatives to further the interests of their respective units. Regionally based parties basically work to advance the interests of their respective regions and thereby consolidate their hold within the region which is necessary for winning elections and becoming a strong force at the Centre. 

Thus, the very notion of representation has undergone a change.  Democracy and democratic ideals of inclusiveness and wider participation have come about, but twisted at the cost of national concerns.  It has become common and legitimate to advocate and champion the interests of one’s state/region unmindful of the repercussions on others.

With coalition governments at the Centre, regional parties have gained bargaining power not only at the States, but also at the Centre.  Both regional and federal issues have become equally important at the national level party politics before as well as after elections. Ministry formation at the Centre and States in coalition governments is an exercise in accommodating regional interests of power sharers. A kind of bargaining democracy has established itself in the last about 25 years.

TDP and DMK are champions of State autonomy – the former insisting on special status for AP and the latter clamouring for more powers for States. The DMK has long time ago coined the slogan “Autonomy for States, and Coalition at the Centre”. Shiv Sena and AGP insist on the theory of “Sons of Soil” to the advantage of local people against migrants from other States.  TMC resents Central authority in the State. Akali Dal wants a broad-based federal structure. 

JD(U) formed by the merger of Janata Party and a number of small parties in 1988 came to power as National Front, but split into many groups – RJD in Bihar, BJD in Odisha, JD(Secular)  in Karnataka and Kerala. They are all in favour of decentralisation of political and economic power.

Split in the national Congress party in some States since the 1990s, has given rise to some prominent regional parties -- TMC, NCP, and Tamil Maanila Congress confirming the reality of unfulfilled regional aspirations within the national party. Splits occur when a national party fails to create a viable federal party structure with sufficient authority to the units and refuses to recognise regional leaders. Centralised control and lack of inner democracy in parties are inconsistent with federalism and encourage regionalism within national parties.

In Tamil Nadu ,where by-election for 18 Assembly constituencies are also to take place, the DMK has released two manifestos – one on macro issues and the other on local issues.  Constituency level promises are also made as the by-elections are crucial to decide the future government in the State. 

All these developments are underlying current state of electoral politics which regional parties want to dominate.  

Most regional parties behave as if they exist solely to promote regional interests.  Some of their leaders have even exposed their ignorance of national issues and lack of any opinion on major national matters in TV interviews.

States are parts of the Indian Union and the federal system does not mean compartmentalisation of Centre-State spheres. Regional parties cannot remain isolated from national politics especially in the context of coalition governments and federal front. Present poll time politics has uncovered the gross inadequacy of some of the regional parties to handle national issues.  

No regional leader can aspire to become a national leader without the support of a national party.   On the other hand, national leaders cannot be made in Delhi or elsewhere without the support of strong State units and/or national acceptance.

The situation demands structural, organisational, and functional federalism of national political parties, healthy coordination between them, and a national spirit binding the federal units.    Since all parties, however small and localised are keen to have a share in the Union Government at the Centre, a sense of nationalism and a dominating national spirit must underlie all political parties contesting elections.

However, we cannot overlook a perceptible change in the thinking of national and regional leaders which accepts coalitions as the need of a federal system and enter into the bargaining process. ---INFA

(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)


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