From Biblio, Jan-Feb 2000, p. 32.


The tail wagging the dog

Indian Politics and the 1998 Elections: Regionalism, Hindutva and State Politics

Edited by Ramashray Roy and Paul Wallace
Sage, New Delhi, Thousand Oaks, London, 1999, 376 pp., Rs 450
ISBN 0-7619-9388-6

Mahesh Rangarajan

Indian politics is at a crucial transitory phase, with the of Congress-dominated system having given way to a new order whose contours are only gradually taking shape. Nothing is as striking as the manner in which the Bharatiya Janata Party, avowedly a party out to replace the old consensus, has had to tack with the wind. The articulation of itsown ideologically defined view of the world has had to be muted to help form governments in New Delhi on three occasions by relying on political formations that do not subscribe to its faith. The rise of critical actors in New Delhi with roots in particular constituent units of the Indian Union may not be a new phenomenon. But the sheer clout wielded by such regional parties is a pointer to a tectonic shift in the polity. Much of the future will hinge on the relationship between the newly aspiring hegemonic force, the BJP, and the configurations of power at the level of the states.
The two premier national parties have over the last decade found it difficult to exceed over half the popular vote. This reflects and in turn exacerbates a phenomenon in which regional parties gain prominence and even a share of power at the federal level. The central factor in the ability of the BJP to form and manage a coalition has been its willingness to trade its own ideological agenda for the politics of consensus
It is the focus on this specific dimension of politics that is the abiding strength of this new collection edited by Roy and Wallace. Each of the key papers takes up a specific state or region but the overall theme is always in sight.That Aral Bihari Vajpayee's party constitutes the core of the National Democratic Alliance is clear but there is still some doubt over where the fulcrum of power lies. No single party has been able to repeat Rajiv Gandhi's feat of winning a clear majority as far back as 1984. In such a context, it is still unclear whether the present regime will see a revival of a declining Hindutva vote base or a shift of the terms of the equation in favour of smaller regional players. The Prime Minister may often be projected as the logical successor to key personalities like Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi, but neither was so heavily reliant on the shifting sands of coalition politics as today's governments are. Where precisely is the tail and where is the dog: the question still hangs in the air, awaiting an answer in a highly fluid situation.

Much of the flux is directly due to the fragmentation of the political system-and indeed of civil society itself-in the Gangetic plain. Pradeep Chhiber and Irfan Nooruddin lucidly trace the collapse of the old loyalties and outline the forces that have increased party competitiveness over the last decade in the Hindi belt. Though often seen as a logical consequence of Mandal and Mandir, these are only symbols of a deeprooted process by which the old social alliance that underwrote the dominance of Congress for the better part of four decades came undone. What is equally important is the reduced clout of players from Uttar Pradesh in a situation where none of them is able to hegemonize the political space the way parties are in other, less populous states of the Union. Kanchan Chandra's portrayal of the increasingly pronounced ethnification of politics raises doubts whether Hindutva or Mandal or even Dalit power will in the short run be able to establish any kind of dominance over public agendas, let alone provide stable governance.

Virginia Van Dyke demonstrates the Janus-faced mobilization strategy of the Hindutva forces in letting religion-based front organisations run ahead of the political wing of the movement in raising emotive slogans. Yet, this strategy that yielded rich dividends in the early 1990s looks set to give diminishing returns in the days ahead.

In neighbouring Bihar, the ascendancy of the BJP and its allies in the form of the Samata Party by 1998 appeared at first sight to signal an end to the politics of Mandal. But the divergent social bases of the partners conceal deeper fissures that are unlikely to subside over time. The saffron platform virtually sweeps the southern region of Bihar on the promise of creating a separate Vananchal (aka Jharkhand) state. Yet, in the north it still heavily relies on combining with the anti-Laloo Prasad Yadav Other Backward Castes who enable it to overcome the 'Savanna versus Mandal' divide. What is striking in a close study such as Binoy Shanker Prasad's is the enduring social coalition of the minorities and Yadavs on the ground. Only an alliance can defeat him, but the durability of such an arrangement is suspect from the very start. For all this, Bihar fits the epithet of `bi-nodal' politics used by the editors in the Introduction, with UP being the sole medium term exception among the major states.

The extent to which political loyalties have been fragmented is clearest in the case of Maharashtra. The alliance with the Dalit-led Republican Party of India and the Samajwadi Party was crucial. It ensured that the Congress was able to overcome the challenge posed by the Sena-BJP combine in 1998. Once the Congress Party and its allies fragmented their base in the following year, they were bound to lose in the Lok Sabha polls. The endurance of the losers in 1998 was clear in the way in which they actually increased their support base but lost because their opponents unified all opposition votes in one basket.

Yet it is in the south and the east that alliance-based politics is really on trial. Harold A. Gould's paper shows how the Hindutva groups were able to profit from the collapse and fracturing of the Janata Dal and expand on their first base south of the Vindhyas. But social bases of parties are not quite as stable as they appear. Karnataka witnessed a Janata sweep in 1996, a Hindutva victory the next time round and then a Congress comeback in the 13th general elections. In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, it is only by riding piggyback on the Telugu Desam that the `national' Bharatiya Janata Party contained the Congress. But the 12th Lok Sabha polls were crucial in giving the BJP the crucial bargaining power with a strong regional ally. It appears that the key to success at the hustings may lie in accepting a subordinate position to a regional satrap. This will work only so long as there is a broad area of agreement between two parties. Once one of them grows stronger, the line up may change. Though the structure of politics is more stable than in the north, the alignments are not set in a freeze. The Congress-AIDMK accord, which hela firm for four elections in a row, may prove to be an exception.

Ramashray Roy's article on Orissa has a significant insight into the factors that have enabled another alliance to endure in two successive polls. The Biju Janta Dal's support is mostly along the coast and the saffron party's voters are in the tribal-inhabited hinterland. A regional party that is a sub-regional force requires the crutch of a national one. In fact, it is the nascent nature of the local outfit that makes it easier to deal with than the more deep-rooted and enduring regional political formations in the deep south.

One of the factors that has undoubtedly helped create an atmosphere for the growth of communal platforms in the country has been the state of affairs in Punjab and Kashmir since the 1980s. In the former, the contours of an order state only reemerged with the victories in 1996 and 1998 of the Akali Dal led alliances. The latter polls saw a return to the old lineup of the two saffron parties, the Akalis and the BJP joining hands. Kumar skilfully shows how their complementary social bases enabled success in reaping a harvest of votes and seats. In turn this required a toning down of sectarian agendas. This in turn worked only as long as the Akalis were united and their own record in government did not become a public issue.

A vastly different and disturbing picture is evident in Jammu and Kashmir. In perhaps the most significant paper in the entire volume Reeta Chowdhari-Tremblay reaches the conclusion based on intensive research that, "The Indian government's faith that the electoral process has been successful in curbing the nationalist movement in the Valley is unwarranted." This is one case where the law-governed process has simply broken down and the electoral system exists only in name.

All in all, the book raises critical questions to which there are no easy answers. It may however be useful to place its key argument in a wider context. The two premier national parties have over the last decade found it difficult to exceed over half the popular vote. This reflects and in turn exacerbates a phenomenon in which regional parties gain prominence and even a share of power at the federal level. The central factor in the ability of the BJP to form and manage a coalition has been its willingness to trade its own ideological agenda for the politics of consensus. The collection does not raise the critical issue of how far such steps may go. In fairness, this is the subject for another study. What does emerge however is a rich and incisive look at the dynamics of politics in several key regions. Wallace and Roy have produced a work that will be invaluable to specialist and lay reader alike. But the turns that lie ahead are such that the issues raised here will remain with us for a long time to come.

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