There are too many regional parties in the fray for the current Lok Sabha elections in India. For some Indians, that is a not a good thing. Even the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh thinks it is not a good thing. Some parties like Congress and BJP call themselves ‘national’ parties. They like to believe they stand for nationalism.
For many Indians nationalism comes as a virtue while regionalism comes as a nuisance. To them nationalism represents unity, oneness, single identity, grand goals and unselfish interests, where the whole country is under one banner while regionalism represents divisiveness, fragmentation, breakup of the nation, dissent, and parochial interests where regions come under many flags and banners. The slogan is ‘united we stand, divided we fall’.
Many nationalist Indians look at regionalism with derision. The images of Shiv Sena baiting Tamils in Mumbai or MNS chasing away Biharis out of Maharashtra come to one’s mind. The regional parties are known for promoting selfish interest of a region or community while ignoring the common interests of a nation.
Of late, coalition politics has been the norm where one ‘national’ party joined forces with ‘regional’ parties to form the government at the center. However, coalition politics is seen as a negative thing because it lacks decisive punch. There is no single party in power making things really complicated, unstable and slow. Many a times the national party had to bow down to the whimsical and parochial demands of regional parties. They were hijacked and held at gun point constantly. Governments fell before they could complete their full term. Policies could not be implemented and decisions could not be taken- all because of coalition politics that included many ragtag elements with conflicting interests. Many Indians wish it was simpler, like having just 2 or 3 parties. That way we would have a clear winner and then things would get smoother.
Nationalism is a virtue, regionalism a nuisance
This differential treatment was inculcated in us even before India became independent. It was done to unite and create a new nation where none existed. Our country was build from many fragments, many kingdoms, regions, and territories. It was important to promote a common identity to unite India by making nationalism a virtue. For a while, it was a romantic notion worth pursuing. Coming out of colonial rule it was necessary to prove to ourselves and to the world that we can stand as a nation, united and strong.
As a corollary regional ideology was suppressed to ensure there was no dissension. After Independence, Nehru created a strong central authority fearing that regional groups may try to secede from India. The trend continued where each of the successive governments at New Delhi tried to make the center stronger while doing everything to make the states weaker.
Nationalism is an ideology
Most of us inherit certain ideas as kids and many of us do not outgrow them. That’s why religion catches them young. You convert them as kids, and most often they are the followers for the rest of their life. An ideology like nationalism works similarly. A country catches people young, instills the ideas of a nation - how great it is and so on, asking them their devotion, their allegiance, making them take a pledge or an oath, and you have a convert who will be loyal for the rest of his life.
Our leaders introduced nationalism to create one identity, one theme that runs through all Indians so that they can stay united. Central authority was strengthened while the regional authorities were weakened. They tried to blur the local and regional identities imposing a national identity. They tried to impose a national song and a national language. These Indians fascinated by nations that had single identity – like in Germany or in Japan.
India is like a group of nations
In this jingoism and fervor of nationalism what gets lost is an essential attribute of India - that it is not a single nation, group, language, or religion. It doesn’t have a single culture, history, or empire. To understand India, one has to look at present-day Europe which has come together to form European Union. The only way that Union can survive is making sure all participants are represented fairly where no single nation imposes its identity onto others. Though we fail to admit it, India works similarly – like a group of nations. Since we do not recognize this essential attribute we never take measures to protect the interest of each region or group – either in the government or in our political system. Indian cannot equate itself with Germany or Japan.
India has never embraced a single identity – it has rejected all such attempts. The signs were there all along. We just failed to accept them. Tamils rejected imposition of Hindi as national language. States got aligned along languages. Lower castes got reservations in education and employment. It was clear right from the time of Independence that India had to deal with multiple identities.
India failed to accept group identities
This reality did not get translated into working mechanism to address regional and groups’ aspirations. When India conceded to these group demands it did so reluctantly, without a comprehensive and proactive strategy. India still tries to solve most of its problems assuming India is a monolithic entity.
India, like most constructed nations, works as a homogenous entity only in certain special situations, like when it faces a common enemy. Thankfully, India found such enemies (in Pakistan and China) right from the beginning. Later, in 1970s the sanctions following Pokhran-I became the rallying point for a wave of nationalism. 1980s saw Pakistan meddling in Punjab and 1990s saw Pakistan intervening in Kashmir thereby keeping the enemy of the nation alive. Nowadays it constructs such enemies where necessary. The last decade, we went about creating enemies internally, out of those who looked different, thought different or those who practiced a different religion.
While India kept its momentum on constructing a single identity, some regional and other group identities lost out, some of them were neglected, some felt they got unfair share, some were snubbed, some had to take an inferior position. There was no forum or platform where such regional aspirations could be addressed. If a state got unfair share there was no way it could express it because our political and administrative system did not recognize such group identities. Eventually, such groups came together to form regional political parties to represent their vested interests.
India, Indian people, Indian political parties do not openly accept the legitimacy of group politics and group identities. They do not take provisions to cater to the demands of group identities. They don’t know how to take care of proper representations. They still carry utopian dream of creating a meritocracy. And democracy is not a meritocracy. Regional and other group identities will eventually voice their opinion, and join the power struggle to get a fair share by creating a political party.
Its inability of Indian political system, its democratic setup, its government structure to recognize group identities that has led to so many regional parties in India.
Emergence of regional parties
These regional parties have come about because the so-called national parties failed to recognize regional aspirations. Like in Europe, each region in India has its cultural identity that it likes to preserve. They expect their requests to be heard, their demands to be met, and their share to be fair.
DMK and AIADMK represent Tamil’s Dravidian sentiment. TDP represented Telugu people’s identity, while TRS represents Telangana sentiment. Shiv Sena and MNS represent Marathas. BSP represents Dalits. SP represents lower castes and Muslims. So on.
Indian democracy will mature only when national parties start recognizing the aspirations of groups and regions in India. National parties have to balance nationalism with regionalism and create structures that allow for proper regional and group representation.
Only when these so-called national parties allow for recognizing regional and group identities would we see a reduction in regional parties. That may eventually lead to 2 or 3 parties in India. Till then, national parties have to work closely with regional parties if they have to form government. Regional parties and coalition politics are here to stay.