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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 11, March 6, 2010

Regional Parties in the Federal Union

Saturday 6 March 2010, by Amna Mirza

BOOK REVIEW

Emergence of Regional Parties in India—Implications for National Parties, Policies and the Democratic System by Ajay K. Mehra and O.P. Sharma; Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Publication Series, Serial No 24, New Delhi; 2008; 130 pages.

Political parties are the link between the society and people in a democracy. They have been harbingers of national struggle, oxygen for exchange of ideas, platform to put forward issues in a democracy. A national party has appeal across the nation whereas, as opposed to it, a regional party has a limited appeal catering to a particular or narrow issue confined within the geographical boundary of the nation. Where the problem of regional political party rises is the inherent fear attached with their notion that they promote the particular versus the general, thereby breeding the Us versus Them unhealthy spirit in the national character. However, one cannot let pass the idea that the pecularity of these scattered units across regions comes up when they find the national parties though being all-inclusive, in the broadened agenda their specific issues are amalgamated to the point of neglect.

In this context, we have this book which begins by debating the one-party system of the Nehruvian era where centralisation in the political domain was seen as a safeguard to strengthen the nationalistic ethos in the newly independent state. However, the authors put this in contrast to the present time where the Congress party accepts that regional parties are needed for harmonious existence of a diverse mosaic. (p. 5) Citing examples of pre- and post-independence regional parties like the Justice Party (Madras), National Conference (Jammu and Kashmir), Jharkhand Party, Shiromani Akali Dal (Punjab), the authors elaborate upon the causes for their emergence by taking cues from the previous work of Rajni Kothari where the idea of interacton between the party of consensus (Congress) and the parties of pressure (non-Congress parties), factionalism and splits in the Congress, Paul Brass’ notion of absence of authoritative leadership in the Congress etc. have revisited to provide the introduction of conceptual clarity.

In the next section titlted ‘National Parties and Regionalism’, themes along with the data are put forward to bring home the aspect of where to place the operation of regional parties in the larger Indian polity framework. A glance at the data reveals that from the first elections in 1952 upto the elections in 2004, the number of parties partcipating in the Lok Sabha elections has risen to 230 which speaks about their increasing presence and the fragmented nature of political ambit. Similarly the vote share for the national parties in 2004 was approximately 62 per cent, for the State parties 28 per cent and other regional parties three per cent which has to be read in consonance with the fact that in the first elections the national parties had a share of 76 per cent and State parties had a share of eight per cent. Alongside these glaring statistical data, the authors provide insight into the kind of pressures generated through these parties by their activities like growth of secessionism, power greed, rise of the personality cult as seen in parties like the RJD, BJD, DMK.

A good comparative insight comes forward as we scan through the working of three coalitions —the National Front (NF), National Democratic Alliance (NDA), United Progressive Alliance (UPA). While the NF was too shortlived and had no coherent ageanda (p. 45), the NDA, on the other hand, displayed maturity to be a tolerant coalitional partner (p. 66) with the BJP shunning down its essence of Hindutva, and the sucessor UPA being a post-poll programmatic alliance to keep the NDA out of power. (p. 79) The authors try to draw a contrast between the policy aspects via the Common Miminmum Programmes of the NDA and UPA, where there is similarity in policy in sync with the changing reality, irrespective of the ideaology of the main coalitional partner, the Congress or BJP; both talk about introducing VAT, reforming banking, investing in agriculture, raising GDP in health, education. (p. 92-99)

Diversity is the hallmark feature to define the Indian Union. Regional parties can be best examples of the same. To have plurality in the working of the polity is good but not to the extent that this plurality tears the inclusive character of society. To talk of one-party dominace is a chimera in the present coalitional era where no one party can stand upto the different and distinct needs of Indian citizens, juxtaposed against the phenomenon of globalisation that has not only led to the shriking of space and time but also brought to the fore the ‘local’ as its anti-thesis. India being a federal union, regional parties do give a certain degree of bargaining space to the States when the balance of power is heavily skewed towards the Union in the Constitution.

As we move away from this theoretical reality, we find that in actual practice governance has taken a back seat, something the authors lament. There are too many issues but resources to satisfy the same are meagre. So the challenge for the Indian Union lies in how to chug along different lines bearing the heterogeneous character yet ensuring the sanctity of the united fabric. In a nutshell, the book is a good compilation of ideas and facts. Perhaps it has its shortcoming in that it fails to put forward an agenda on how to streamline the working of the regional parties, how to make governance capable of eliciting support from all sections and what are the areas for the reform of political parties.

The author is a Ph.D scholar, University Teaching Assistant, Department of Political Science, University of Delhi. She can be contacted at e-mail: amnamirza2002@gmail.com

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