By Tridivesh Singh Maini
While Non-Congress parties spare no opportunity to accuse the Congress Party of psychophancy and a feudal culture, regional parties are not far behind. In fact, they have perfected the art of dynastic politics, beating the Congress Party. Some prominent examples are the National Conference in Jammu and Kashmir, the DMK in Tamil Nadu, The Shivsena in Maharashtra and The Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab. Interestingly, family feuds over succession have led to a split of both the Shiv Sena and the Shiromani Akali.
There are many commonalities amongst regional parties. First, most of them took on the might of the government during the emergency in 1975 and many senior leaders of these parties were jailed during this time. It would not be wrong to say that this was the period during which a strong anti-Congress nexus built up, amongst many of these regional parties. Though later on some regional parties such as the National Conference and DMK have been part of Congress led alliances.
Second, most of these regional parties are led by dynasties. The clear examples being the National Conference headed by Union Minister Farooq Abdullah who has handed over the reigns of Chief Minister to his son Omar Abdullah. In Tamil Nadu based Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) there is a war of succession as to who will be party supremo Karunanidhi’s heir. In Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray’s nephew Raj Thackeray formed his own political outfit, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), which has considerably dented Thackeray’s vote bank apart from having a detrimental impact on the social fabric of Maharashtra, especially Mumbai, by making life miserable for immigrants. In the case of Punjab, acrimony between Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) stalwart and Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal’s son Sukhbir Singh Badal, also current Deputy Chief Minister of the state and Manpreet Singh Badal nephew of the Punjab CM led to the exit of Manpreet from the SAD. Manpreet has formed his own political outfit, PPP (People’s party of Punjab).
Third, many of these regional parties join hands with national parties and give up their core issues to keep alliances afloat. However, when they are embroiled in personal controversies they begin to talk about discrimination by the Central Government. While the going is smooth, they have no qualms about giving up their convictions on crucial issues. Once there are charges of corruption or there are other serious accusations, these regional parties try to rake up emotional issues and up the ante against the centre. While there is no doubt that Indian federalism has a long way to go and some of the demands made by these regional parties are legitimate. It is the timing of their demands and use of rhetoric at that point of time which is suspect.
A good illustration of the above point is the NC which is ruling over Kashmir. It has been an ally of both the NDA and the UPA governments. Farooq Abdullah in fact had good relations with senior leadership of both the BJP and Congress. His son Omar, who shares a good rapport with Rahul Gandhi, gave a very convincing speech in favour of the Indo-US nuclear deal in Parliament in September 2008. Off late however the relationship between the Congress and NC appears to be strained due to the issue of Armed Forces Special Provision Act from Jammu and Kashmir. Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah has taken a strong stand on the issue, much to the chagrin of the Jammu and Kashmir unit of the Congress Party, which complains that Abdullah never consulted them before raising this demand. While the Chief Minister has been making the right noises over issues pertaining to human rights, he has never been so vociferous. While it would be unfair to say that Abdullah’s aggressive stand is disingenuous and he is using it to deflect public attention from the murder charge, attributed to him, of a party worker Syed Mohammad Yousuf. It is a bit surprising that Abdullah’s uncle and National Conference spokesman made some strong remarks pertaining to the Indian army as well as Kashmir’s accession to India in the span of a few days, when Omar’s own reputation has been considerably dented. The main rival of the NC, the People’s Democratic Party another family run enterprise also toed a different line while in power, than it has while sitting in opposition.
Other regional parties such as the DMK in Tamil Nadu, allied to the UPA and the SAD (part of the NDA) in Punjab have also exhibited similar tendencies of giving up core issues, and then reusing them when they have political relevance. The latter takes a strong line on issues pertaining to Punjab’s interests and Sikh issues either whilst it is out of power, or during election time.
While all these regional parties were established with the goal of providing a voice to genuine regional demands for strengthening India’s federal structure. Some of them have moved away from their original ideals and have fallen prey to the same vices which they were supposed to take on – authoritarianism, family rule and corruption. By misusing the mandate given by the people, they relegate genuine and legitimate grievances of their respective states.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow with The Observer Research Foundation. Disclaimer: Views are personal