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Regionalism to the fore

Regionalism to the fore

Author: Kalyani Shankar
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: March 13, 2009
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/162145/Regionalism-to-the-fore.html

Congress, BJP continue to lose space to smaller parties, making alliances brittle and fractious. Is there a way out of this conundrum?

Are the two national parties moving towards splendid isolation, surrendering political space to regional parties? Will the next Government be formed by parties coming together purely for the sake of power? The Left is already claiming that it will be a 1996-like scenario when the Congress had to support the United Front, formed by regional parties, from outside.

The larger question is: Why are the national parties shrinking? The Congress and the BJP are no more in a position to play 'big brother' to smaller partners. With strong regional satraps ruling in different States, they have no qualms about coming together to capture power after the polls. Isn't it time for the Congress and the BJP to give serious attention to why they are getting sidelined?

The two parties should know that they are themselves to blame for this situation.

As for the Congress, it has lost its original strength. In the immediate years after independence, the Congress was governing almost all States. Slowly, the party lost space in the States as well as at the Centre. The Congress has not won a simple majority since 1984 in the Lok Sabha elections.

Second, the Congress has lost its character. With Congress leaders sporting designer dark glasses, fancy watches and living the high life, a party known for its simplicity is no longer seen as one with the masses. For all its sloganeering about the 'aam admi', the people do not see their concerns reflected in the Government's policies.

Fourth, a fractious coalition by way of the UPA has not helped matters. With the Congress deciding to opt for State-level, and not national, alliances, its allies are bargaining hard for seats. This is most obvious in Uttar Pradesh where the Samajwadi Party is playing tough.

Third, to increase its tally at the Centre, the Congress began the practice of riding piggyback on regional parties. For instance, after the Congress aligned with the DMK and the AIADMK alternatively, it lost its relevance in Tamil Nadu. Similarly, by trying to leverage the BSP's popularity in Uttar Pradesh (and now the Samajwadi Party) the Congress has been pushed to the margins in that State.

A section in the Congress thinks that unless the party fights on its own, it cannot regain the space it has ceded, but there aren't enough takers for this line. The absence of strong State-level leaders, of which there were many in the Congress till the late-1970s and early-1980s, has only worsened the situation.

Fourth, the Congress has lost touch with party workers at the grassroots-level. Those who have access to the darbar in Delhi get their work done, but ordinary workers are not so lucky and are slowly getting disenchanted with the party.

As for the BJP, its decline at the national level began when it lost its citadel in Uttar Pradesh. The party remained confined to the Hindi belt for years and after much effort gained power in Karnataka last year. But it has virtually no presence in the other southern States.

The BJP-led NDA has shrunk form 24 partners 2004 to less than half-a-dozen in 2009. The BJP urgently needs to correct its image. First, the party has lost its ideological moorings and is perceived as willing to compromise on ideology for the sake of power.

Second, there is lack of cohesiveness between the BJP and its allies. The NDA is a group of parties which have nothing in common. Hence, the BJP is unable to hold on to its allies. The party received a severe jolt last weekend when the BJD severed ties with it in Orissa. The BJD's move could be a precursor to the remaining allies of the BJP demanding a greater share of the NDA pie.

Third, the BJP's allies appear to expect the general election to result in a fractured verdict with the neither the Congress nor the BJP getting sufficient number of seats to form a Government. In such a scenario, they would like to keep their options open, or so it seems.

There are two other factors that have contributed to alliance troubles for both the Congress and the BJP. First, anti-Congress and anti-BJP sentiments are now coalescing into support for regional parties, giving rise to the possibility of a Third Front Government. Second, the emergence of strong State-level leaders like Ms Mayawati, Ms Jayalalithaa, Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mr Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mr Nitish Kumar, Ms Mamata Banerjee, Mr Naveen Patnaik and Mr Omar Abdullah, who have used narrow identity politics to their advantage, has reduced the space for politics with a national perspective.

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