April 2014
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Regionalising Democracy

It is the failure to come up with an agenda that is distinct from the national parties and common to all regional parties, that the latter have repeatedly failed to forge a stable coalition in the form a third front at the Centre, says Ajay Gudavarthy.

 

 




Among many features of democracy in India, is the growing federalisation with the rise and growth of regional parties. Regional parties that sprung into prominence in India after the collapse of the ‘Congress System’ in 1967 began to represent regional diversity in terms of economic needs, and cultural aspirations. They were also the representative political forces of regional bourgeoisie that began to take shape from agrarian surplus after the Green Revolution, as against the national and global capital flows. They have steadily played a bigger role in national politics though they repeatedly failed to provide stable governments at the Centre, whenever they attempted to form a ‘third front’. The failure to form stable alliances is representative of the federal structure with unitary features, where the regional parties seem to be able to come together in a stable coalition only while rallying around the national parties, either Congress or BJP.

Reasons for unstable coalition
The question this time around really is will the general elections in 2014 be any different? Will regional parties such as the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Trinamool Congress (TMC), Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), All India Anna Dravida Munnetram Kazhagam (AIADMK) and Telugu Desam Party (TDP) manage a third front? Or would they prefer to join one of the coalitions led by a national party? A major reason why regional parties have repeatedly failed to forge a stable coalition can be traced to the absence of a political agenda that is distinct and different from the national parties and that which is common to the regional parties. While there is undoubtedly a great diversity in terms of the economy and polity of each state, this does not discount the fact that there can be a common programme that reflects common concerns of the states, beginning with centrality of agriculture, education and health.
The third front has failed to strike an alternative social and economic programme that is different from the national parties. This process has become all the more difficult with a near consensus on economic reforms and carrying out ‘reforms by stealth’, at the national as well as regional levels. This is not to say that there are no competing or conflicting interests that these parties represent but just that they have simply preferred not to represent their constituencies. Perhaps, one of the initial trends in contrast to this near-consensus model has been the recent protest by various regional parties with regard to the issue of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the retail sector. Most of the regional parties, including the SP, TMC and BSP spoke a different language of protecting the ‘small traders’ in their states against the giant incursions by multinational brands such as the Walmart.

Addressing the agrarian crisis
Similarly, regional parties need to represent agriculture. Many of the states in India, including Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, among others are facing acute agrarian crisis, which has resulted in farmer‘s suicides in the recent past. However, in the changing dynamics, the regional parties began to play a different tune of allowing corporate agriculture, with the introduction of Monsanto seeds, expensive fertilisers, cash crops, introducing insurance, and other such market-oriented moves in order to facilitate the transfer of agricultural sector from local to global. However, for various reasons these have not worked and the crisis grew deeper because regional political formations failed to represent the interests of these sections. In fact, if one observes the trend it is clear that those political parties have been voted back, which have brought agriculture back to the centre stage of policy formulation and political programme. In Andhra Pradesh, for instance, Y. S. Rajsekhar Reddy came back to power in 2004 and then again in 2009 with a series of welfare measures for the farmers and other marginalised sections of the rural hinterlands. These included free electricity, free transportation for the farmers to sell their produce, Arogyashree, a health scheme for the rural poor providing housing , among others things. It is a paradox that a regional party like the TDP began to represent global capital, and adopted the economic model presented by the World Bank, while a national party like the Congress came back with an agrarian agenda. This interchange of their historic roles is the result of a super-imposed economic model of growth. It was again Congress that pressed for the recent Land Acquisition Bill (2012), invoking the role of Panchayats in acquiring land for the purpose of industry, while parties such as the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPI) (M) lost power in West Bengal for its forceful acquisition of land, although they had represented the interests of the peasants for the last three decades, including carrying out land reforms in the 1960s. This is again symptomatic of the role-reversal- from land reforms to land acquisition.

Emphasis on quality education
Along with agriculture, regional parties must also take up education as their second most important agenda. Most of the government schooling is in a dilapidated condition. Providing quality schooling will propel inter-generational mobility, and also partially address the inequalities across caste, class, gender and the rural-urban divide. Regional parties as part of the ‘third front’ could take up the issue of ‘Common neighbourhood schooling system’ along the lines of the United States of America. Under this system, the government should ensure near-similar quality schooling across the state and ensure and, in fact make it mandatory that all those residing in a particular geographical limit need to go to the same school. The recent Right to Education (RTE) Act has provided 25 percent preferential admission in corporate schools to children coming from economically weak backgrounds. Common neighbourhood schooling will also address various anomalies that the system of reservations has presented for higher education in India. This will also help negotiate various cultural prejudices that are rampant in rural India.

Health, another pressing issue
Access to good healthcare facilities is a pressing need in many parts of India. Regional parties can make this a part of their common agenda as they have a major role to play here. The recent debate on compulsory one-year posting for junior doctors working at government hospitals is a right move in that direction. The discourse on ‘Youth’ in India has been centered on an urban imagination and the debate around ‘demographic dividend’ also has urban youth aspiring for global opportunities. The rural youth has been missed out. The recent protest by junior doctors against mandatory rural-postings can be seen as a part of these aspirations. However, it would in fact be pertinent to push a system of mandatory rural posting for many other professions as well, to include college and university teachers, engineers, lawyers, among others. This would work both ways, allowing urban India to learn from and about rural India, and benefit rural India from the skills that these professionals hold. Regional parties could play a proactive role in bridging the age-old gap between ‘Bharat’ and ‘India’.
Wider role for regional parties is by definition healthy for democracy, provided these parties represent the diversity they belong to rather than follow-suit the national and global models of development, overlooking the specificities in each of the states.

The writer teaches at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He has also taught at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. His areas of interest include Political Theory, Indian Politics, debates on Civil Society, Democracy and Globalisation. (The views expressed in the article are those of the writer.)

 

 

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