The five on-going state elections in India hint at a shift away from old established players who have failed to recognise the dreams of the youth. This is part of a global trend, from the Arab upheavals, to Hong Kong’s Umbrella protests, to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the U.S.
By Manjeet Kripalani*
Five major state elections are on-going in India. West Bengal and Assam in the east, and Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry in the south. These states are distinguished from their other counterparts in India by the presence of a strong regional culture that supercedes the national culture. They are dominated by regional political parties that supercede the presence of national political parties in their states. All are likely to see upheaval in their cozy existence – some more than others – come May 19 when election results are declared. This has implications for India as a country, and its foreign policy.
The most interesting states by far are West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. Both are in the grip of two-party dominance for the last four decades or more. The single-party grip of the Left in Bengal has been loosened by the determination of Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress, so now instead of one party, Bengal has two, but the street level tactics are not so different. Tamil Nadu has been ruled, in turn, by the Dravidian parties of the DMK run by Karunanidhi and his family, and AIDMK run by Jayalalithaa and her bureaucrats and cronies.
To think that regional dominance is being challenged, precisely at the time when ‘competitive federalism’ is being actively promoted by New Delhi, seems ironic. But it is precisely the contrasting and coalescing forces in the states that will change this long-standing political equation in India.
This is why, starting from the macro to the micro.
First, around the world, old established systems, corpulent and slow from years of dominance, have been unable to comprehend – and are uninterested in delivering on – the dreams of a new generation and its embrace of new technology. This is embodied in the vast movements that have shaken up societies and economies, starting from the Arab upheavals to the Occupy movement, the bus ticket protests in Brazil and Umbrella movement in Hong Kong, and closer to home, the anti-corruption movement. The elite of the old establishment are under attack by the new elites, starting with the military and monarchies of West Asian states being undone by youth protests and now the takeover of the Islamic State. There’s the wild public support given to both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in this U.S. election season, and the right-wing politics in a Europe terrified by West Asian fundamentalism and its refugees.
Second: Closer to home, the election of the BJP to national power in 2014 and the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi in 2015, has reduced both the established Congress and Left parties to small numbers and no embraceable ideology. It was inevitable that the regional players like the Left in Bengal and Kerala and the DMK in Tamil Nadu, which became the establishment, began to weaken. Expect to see the same with parties like NCP and Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, the BSP and SP in UP, and despite the recent wins, some of the state parties in Bihar. Same story: fat from decades of being in power, and not so interested in delivering to the new voter.
Third, being given more power and responsibility by the centre through the instrument of federalism is not what regional parties want – why take the initiative and compete with other states when the state machinery’s setting is made to work smoothly for its political patron, not the voter? Why worry about state debts, still unconscionably high at 22% to GDP, when voters’ five-year electoral contract can be guaranteed through cash and expensive freebies like mixer-grinders, mobile phones, tablet notebooks, cycles and even refrigerators in Tamil Nadu?
A comeuppance is in order. As in the U.S., Indian state leaders are not paying much attention to their youthful populations. In Tamil Nadu, over 25% of the voters are under 30 years of age. The ‘Whatsapp-osphere’ is full of Tamil jokes about the politicians; many say they will push the NOTA button on election day. There is no presence of the national parties here, and not even a shadow of new national parties like AAP, which young voters identify with. They are looking at the next state elections, when the debilitated establishment will give them a smoother entry.
Worse, the grease that kept Tamil Nadu in the top slot of India’s performing states for years, i.e. its businessmen, are not investing in the state any more. They are fed-up, fatigued, and enervated from endemic, corrosive corruption.
Kerala’s condition is even more grim. With West Asian countries in a secular decline, this remittance economy has not learned to work for itself. Change will not occur without social upheaval as the money stops and the hundreds and thousands of expat Malayalis start their long march homeward – with no jobs in sight.
West Bengal too has not seen much new job creation. But with an improved road and power infrastructure, small businesses are finding life less onerous. Calcutta’s taxi drivers repair their cars less and consume less petrol thanks to better paved roads by the TMC government, for instance – a positive for chief minister Mamata Banerjee. And despite her much-publicised arbitrariness and disregard for industry and economics, one aspect of Bengal has changed – businessmen are starting to talk about the region. Not just the region of Bengal, but the wider Asian region around it – Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, ASEAN.
Siddhant Kaul, a young businessman in the theme park and industrial cable business, has been looking keenly at Bengal’s connectivity, and the benefits of its geographical location. “The BBIN (Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal) roads network will make Kolkata the hub of this region – and perhaps beyond,” he said at a meeting with economists and journalists in Kolkata recently. In July, he is organizing a conference around the theme. At last maybe, India will start to Act East.
Could this be true? Not if the old establishment continues in power. But if the new generation of voters can learn to express what they want – not just what they don’t want, as they do through NOTA – it could be the beginning of an India that navel-gazes less, and engages outward, more.
About the author:
*Manjeet Kripalani is the co-founder and executive director of Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, Mumbai.
This feature was written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.