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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 50, November 30, 2013

Regional Parties in Indian Democracy: Centre and Peripheries

Sunday 1 December 2013, by Indrajeet Singh


When democracy was officially installed in India in 1947, all citizens were accorded the right to vote, regardless of the illiteracy, poverty and social inequality of most of them. The decision promised equality, liberty and justice to all the people, regardless of caste, class and religion. The world took note, and interpretations of the emerging Indian experience began from then onwards.

Unlike in Europe, the democratic process in India preceded industrialisation. Unfolding before the hopes and aspirations of the masses, who had been praying for ages that their material condition would improve, democracy in India was going to be a journey for all people to improve their destiny under equal ground rules gifted by the process of modernisation.

Nehru’s declaration of a tryst with destiny as India awoke to freedom when the whole world was sleeping seems at times to be full of contradictions. Was India really waking up, or had it been spending sleepless nights with its painful stories for years? It had arrived at a historic moment of expectation, but the relief and hope the people sought would call for the building of a nation-state out of different kinds of diversities and complexities existing in an unequal and highly hierarchical societal structure, as well as poverty, scarcity, and famine.

At the time of independence, Indians already had the option of a Western, materialist life style, and many who called themselves modern moved towards worldly issues, and could be said to have broken off with the ‘spiritual’ world. They rejected the ideas of M.K. Gandhi, who was more inclined towards the traditions of India. Ultimately, the proponents of modernity embraced the teachings of John Locke and Jeremy Bentham, and some took to the idea of Marx’s teachings and communism.

Over time, liberal democrats gained ground in establishing the ideas of liberalism in the most traditional society. But it is important to note that these liberals have never been able to completely win the game against traditionalists. This struggle continues.

According to Rudolph and Rudolph’s studies on ‘the modernity of tradition’, in their examination of political developments in India, ‘modernity’ assumes that local ties and parochial perspectives give way to universal commitments and cosmopolitan attitudes; that the truths of utility, calculation, and science take precedence over those of the emotions, the sacred, and the non-rational; that the individual rather than the group becomes the primary unit of society.1

Today, all the battles are being fought in the liberal democratic sphere. At the time of independence, there were three important democratic strands: the liberal democratic, the communist, and different types of groups with regional political identities. A distance was already discernible between the euphoria of the nation-state and rising regional aspirations.

All these groups wanted to make their presence felt, through the instruments of representative democracy . They moved to represent different groups of Indian society in the form of some kind of political parties.

In a sense, one can say that liberal philosophy of democracy was taking more deep roots in different societies of the world and India was no exception to it. More and more citizens started participating in political processes through the utility of regional political parties. Lower castes and lower classes found electoral instrumentality to bury the means of their exploitation. Yogendra Yadav calls it ‘The Second Democratic Upsurge’2 and Christophe Jaffrelot considers it ‘The Silent Revolution’.3

After the initial years of independence, when the citizens trusted the national party and what Rajni Kothari called the ‘Congress System,’4 the people of India looked to regional political forces and their parties to cast away poverty and achieve a healthy social and economic infrastructure. They also envisioned a corruptionless society, and hoped for this from the regional political parties especially after 1990.

The domination of the national political parties has faltered after 1991. Ever since, no national party has been able to form the government at the Centre on its own. Coalition politics has become a reality in Indian society.

A basic irony is that the Indian leaders bequeathed the idea of liberal philosophy into the Indian state and society but the two structures have remained largely unchanged.

The exponents of liberal democracy have the opinion that individuals matter a lot because they make up society and shape their destiny by understanding the importance of their self-worth, capabilities and potential. They can participate in the market system with equal life chances thereby improving their material conditions. These citizens can live together by resolving different types of conflicts with the help of co-operative capacities lying within them. So, societies and political entities should pay attention to improving the fate of every individual.

Two decades on, challenges remain. We do not see much improvement in the life of local citizens. The problem is that the regional parties have also taken power from the national political parties in the name of some kind of community syndrome, whether it is in the name of culture, sons of the soil, language, religion or ‘nativism’. According to Ashutosh Varshney “non-economic interests defined in ethnic, caste, and religious ways are now blocking the economic construction of rural interests. These identities, moreover, are unlikely to be subdued by the economic thrust of the farmers’ movement and politics.”5

The leaders of the regional parties have not created much space for individuals to improve, but they have used them for the vote-bank. Regional political parties have failed to offer any important agenda different from national political parties. They are also obsessed with populist rhetoric like poverty elimination, and the distribution of food and lap-tops.

Whosoever comes to power through these means has not improved the life-chances of the majority of citizens beyond some psychological reassurance.

Generally speaking, the regional parties have not done much for the local people in the true sense. They are feeding on populist politics which is the byword in the political arena, whether national or regional. These parties might do better in the elections of 2014, but the problem is that they are not in a position to offer anything better than what the national political parties have offered.

If regional politics goes on for a long time in the same fashion, the future of the regional political parties is not bright.

One should not, however, underestimate the potential role the regional parties could play. If they concentrate on genuinely improving the prospects of the local people, and if they set an example in honesty and in opposing corruption, they will go a long way. The importance of these factors—what has been done as well as what has been left un-done—cannot be easily ignored.


1. Rudolph and Rudolph, The Modernity of Tradition: The Political Development in India, [New Delhi: published by Orient Blackswan Private Limited, 1967], p. 3.

2. Yogendra Yadav, ‘Understanding the Second Democratic Upsurge: Trends of Bahujan Participation in Electoral Politics in the 1990s’ in Transforming India: Social and Political Dynamics of Democracy (edited by Francine R. Frankel, Zoya Hasan, Rajeev Bhargava, Balveer Arora) [New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000].

3. Christophe Jafrelot, India’s Silent Revolution [Oxford Apartments, Delhi: published by Permanent Black, 2003].

4. Rajni Kothari, “The Congress ‘System’ in India”, Asian Survey, IV, No. 12, December 1964.

5.Ashutosh Varshney, Democracy, Development, and the Countryside: Urban-Rural Struggles in India [New York, United States, Cambridge University Press, 1998], p. ix.

Indrajeet Singh is an Assistant Professor, Khalsa College, Delhi University. He can be contacted at E-mail:

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