Regionalism, Parties and India's emerging Politics

The elections to Legislative Assemblies (LA) of National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram during November-December 2013 and upcoming general election in 2014 have opened up for speculation and debate on the role of smaller state-based regional parties. Mizoram has a bipolar system with the Mizo National Front-led Mizoram Democratic Alliance and the Indian National Congress (Congress) forming the two poles. All the three states and the NCT of Delhi have bi-party systems, with the ‘national’ parties Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) being the main contenders for power. The emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi already appears like a game-changer, as pre-election surveys are predicting.  The AAP has challenged the monopoly of the two national parties in Delhi.  Thus, despite the Congress and BJP becoming essential to an alternation process in India, state/regional parties have emerged as a significant phenomenon both at the national and state levels.

The sixteenth general election in 2014 will undoubtedly bring in several of state/regional parties as stakeholders at the national stage, a phenomenon that commenced in 1989. It represents an interesting changing tapestry of alliances with state/regional parties as important stakeholders in power along with the two national parties. Between 1998 and 2009 the two major coalitions, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), were built on the support of several parties, most of them state parties. The 1998 NDA, the first coalition which was attempted by a major national party, had 24 coalition partners including the BJP, of which 20 were state/regional parties and 17 of them were operating in only one state. A more cohesive NDA in 1999 had 17 state/regional parties and in 2004 it consisted of 11 state/regional parties. The UPA in 2004 had 11 state/regional parties in the alliance, starting with 19 such parties in 2009, it had nine parties withdrawing from the alliance, later three supported from outside.  Further, parties such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhgham (DMK), the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhgham (AIADMK), the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) that now give outside support to the UPA, as also some of the smaller parties were represented in both the coalitions as well as in the Third Front alliance. Some have even tried constituting a fourth front. Obviously, the dynamic pattern of alliances in the past two decades could represent a new jigsaw in 2014, with state/regional parties playing  a key role. While their stake in political power at the national level has come to remain significant in the foreseeable future, a debate on the impact of this phenomenon on the Indian polity, the party system and democracy continues.

Region and Regionalism

At the opening session of the national integration conference on 28 September 1961 Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru cautioned against ‘evils’ such as ‘communalism, casteism, regionalism and linguism’. Forty-five years later on 1 September 2005, while reviving the National Integration Council (NIC) inaugurated by the first Prime Minister of India, Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh said, ‘As a pluralistic society and polity, we have adequate space for regional and sub-regional identities and cultures. These are not necessarily inimical to our larger concept of nationhood. We must rejoice at the blossoming of these regional identities and lay emphasis on harmony rather than uniformity. We must, at the same time, ensure that these local identities become part of our diverse mosaic in a harmonious way rather than become the cause for divisiveness and exclusion. ’ Significantly, 14 years after independence Nehru felt the need for the NIC, it fell into disuse four decades later and while reviving the institution 13 years later Manmohan Singh emphasised ‘harmony rather than uniformity’, a candid admission that regionalism is integral to Indian identity, hence also to politics, in the twenty-first century.

Obviously, dynamic concepts of nation and region involving historical, geographical, social, political and administrative categories have been viewed with centripetal vs. centrifugal and unity vs. fragmentation arguments in India because partition of the subcontinent created a fear of centrifugal tendencies. Despite the suspicion, regional sentiments around the country questioned the reorganisation of states in 1956 and fruition of several regional claims since doubled the number of states from 14 to 28. That the process is still inconclusive and demands for statehood from several ‘regions’ are simmering, means that the nation in India must come to terms with and harmonise regional aspirations.

Region is a geographic term, relatively static in physical geography, but highly dynamic in social and political geography, signifying a territory, which attains social, political, economic and geostrategic connotation when defined in national and international contexts. A region in the context of nation connotes a contiguous territory more or less homogenous in a specific context or in terms of a set of defined categories that give it character of a unit. Regions could either be administrative units of a country, or geo-strategic concatenation of a group of nations with politico-economic or military objectives. Significantly, region also indicates interrelations amongst variables such as historical, linguistic, cultural, social and structural, which come into play when a diverse, plural and civilisational nationhood in India seeks a democratic path.

The plurality of India, also in terms multiple regions, invited balkanisation fears quite early in India’s democratic journey. Yet, the fears of Tamil separatism in the 1960s were absorbed by the Indian democratic process when the Dravidian political party DMK took centre stage in Madras/Tamil Nadu state. While separatist fears in Jammu and Kashmir and some parts of the northeast have persisted since independence, India has resolved some violent secessionist demands such as Punjab (Khalistan) and Mizoram. Regionalism in India has found expression largely in demands for creation of a new state or formation of a new party; on occasions both have coincided and aided each other. An acknowledgement that creation of smaller states based on regional and administrative considerations could lead to better governance is the reflection of regions being perceived as components strengthening Indian democracy, though a consensus on the basis for and number of states has been difficult given the number of claims.

Parties National and Regional    

The founding of the Indian National Congress, a platform for urban educated Indians to ventilate their grievances against the British colonial rule in December 1885 became the foundation of the party system in India. Between the six decade long struggle for independence from colonial rule and the Congress becoming post-independence ‘one-party-dominant system’ or the ‘Congress system’ as described by political scientist Rajni Kothari, there were occasions of ideology-based splits and mergers, which in retrospect could be considered as the shape of things to come in India’s post-independence democratic journey, i.e., India’s competitive politics over decades created many more political platforms based on regional and other interests than all continuing to be on one platform based on an overarching social coalition.  The maintenance of such a social coalition over decades also meant sustaining a strong and cohesive political organisation against political challenges being posed by multiple political ideologies and interests, including regional ones. As the Congress began to wilt under multiple pressures since the mid-1960s following the transition from the liberation-movement-generation to the post-independence generation, social coalition shrunk from a broad one to an electorally winning one; the residues emerging as smaller parties.

The mid-1970s witnessed a crisis in the celebrated Congress system: an alternative emerged in form of the Janata Party, only to deceive within couple of years. A decade of Congress rule during the 1980s was also its undoing, with a few regional outfits taking salience or emerging on regional issues, and by the mid 1990s it became one of the major national parties, the BJP emerging as the alternative competitor. Important regional issues emerging during the two decades that witnessed weakening of the Congress were increasing militancy in Punjab, the Assam anti-foreigner movement, a movement for Telugu pride and the emergence of the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh, aside from many fragments emerging with splits and merging back to the parent party or vanishing.

The Indian party system has come to have different categories of parties, which in academic analyses have been referred to as polity wide parties and state parties through fission and fusion of parties from the Congress behemoth since independence on ideology or eldership ambition, ethnic and/or regional/state interests pursued by a group or leadership. The weakening of the Congress in the mid-1960s, mid-1970s and since the mid-1980s hastened mushrooming of parties. However, a few significant trends deserve analysis. First is the formation of the Justice Party in the Madras Presidency in 1917 on an anti-Brahmin plank and its eventual transformation in 1944 by Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker into Dravida Kazhgham, a party that carried the anti-Brahmin plank further. Both DMK, which decisively displaced Congress from Madras/Tamil Nadu politics in the fourth general election in 1967, and AIADMK that branched out from the DMK, is now in alternation with it in Tamil Nadu since 1972, continue to be part of the same tradition. Among the earliest parties arising out of ‘regional’ sentiments would be Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab (1920), Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (1932), Jharkhand Party (1949) and several parties in different states of India’s northeast. They have represented a mix of religious, ethnic and regional sentiments and their movements and demands have varied from full autonomy to separate statehood. Politically, each one of them has represented a region and its people in an atomised micro sense, but from the perspective of a polity, they have rightly been named state parties. For, ‘region’ gives a sense of nuclearisation of the nation, which could prove a contrarian process to nation building in a plural society, while situating the parties within the ‘states’ that are constitutional geographical units within the polity and gives an inclusive perspective.

However, even as regionalism at different points of time has been described as a negative process and as a reflection of plurality that deserves to be harmonised, it must be admitted that despite some contrarian processes, it has become integral to India’s competitive politics in over six decades of electoral process. India’s constitutional process has been interacting with regionalism, which has at times given rise to parties that focus on ethnic and identity based demands of regions of different sizes, as lately in the case of Telangana region in the state of Andhra Pradesh, and attending to grievances and demands that arise as a result. However, all the parties categorised generically as regional, are not regional in the true sense of the term.

‘Regional’ Parties, National Politics

State/Regional parties in most cases have national ambitions, many of them such as AIADMK, All India Trinamool Congress, Nationalist Congress Party and so on; have prefixed their larger aspirations and agenda. However, either an independent formation or a fragment from any of the larger national parties, they have carved out a niche area of political influence for electoral dominance for themselves, cutting into the vote of one or the other national party. The creation of the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh in 1983, for example, led to weakening of the Congress, till it clawed back in 2004. Similarly, the Trinamool Congress impacted the fortunes of the Congress in West Bengal. The BJP too was impacted in Karnataka when it removed the party chief minister in the state B.S. Yeddyurappa due to controversies and he formed Karnataka Janata Paksha that cut into the BJP votes in 2013 Legislative Assembly elections. Moreover, with coalition politics at the national level a norm, the two national parties have to seek out to these outfits to form the government at the Centre. These parties signify Marcus Franda’s formulation ‘small is politics’.


Clearly, despite emphasis on nation building based on an all-encompassing Indian nation, region and locality were given sufficient space to flourish socially and culturally. Naturally, their political manifestations could have been capped only as long as a pan-Indian political party could represent most of local and regional aspirations. As Paul Brass has prophetically argued, tension between homogenising and pluralist, national and regional, centralising and decentralising tendencies are at the heart of struggle for power in Indian politics, and that ‘the long-term prognosis remains in favour of the latter set of forces’. This is a prognosis that has been increasingly supported by the results of elections held in India during the past decade and a half. However, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s celebration of regionalism quoted above and the readiness with which national parties are seeking regional parties for electoral alliances, reflect greater acceptance of regionalism both at cultural and political levels.