Debating India


Rising aspirations


Friday 23 April 2004, by TRIPATHI*Purnima S.

The advent of coalition politics at the Centre has enabled regional parties to move centre stage from the peripheries of the political system. Some of them have traditionally represented regional aspirations, s ome are shrunken forms of erstwhile national parties, and some others bank on caste or communal sentiments. On the eve of Elections 2004, a look at their records and prospects.

Growth beyond a caste base

THE one development that changed the political discourse in the country and threw up caste-based outfits in the process was the unleashing of the Mandal Commission Report giving 27 per cent reservation to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) by former Prime Minister V.P. Singh in 1990. Its implementation, it can justifiably be said, changed the shape of the polity from a two-party system to a multi-dimensional structure in which every caste and sub-caste pushed and shoved for its own share of the political space. This led to the emergence of caste-specific parties.

In Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), viewed as "Yadav-centric" when it was formed in October 1992, along with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), stood politics in the State on its head, thereby reversing in the process the earlier brahminical order promoted by the Congress culture. The focus shifted from the traditional hierarchy to one based on numerical strength. Share in power as per numerical strength became the norm.

The fact that the S.P., which fought its first Lok Sabha elections in 1996, could thwart the Congress(I) from coming to power in 1999 speaks for the changed political dynamics of the country. The emergence of regional parties brought about this change and these parties and their leaders have increasingly dominated the country’s politics since then. V.P. Singh saw nothing wrong in this and said the polity only came to "reflect society in actuality".

According to him, the pre-Mandal political system was based on the domination by upper-caste Hindus of OBCs and all that he did was to end that. "Once the OBCs realised the power of their vote, the dynamics changed. But the idea was not to stop at this but to bring about change in society as well," he said, adding that the agenda is still incomplete. "Politics can have two purposes: power and change. Right now everyone is bothered only about power. A time will come when there will be somebody who will bring about change," he says.

Interestingly, the rise of the S.P. is inversely proportional to the fall of the Congress(I) in Uttar Pradesh. In the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, the S.P. captured 20.83 per cent of the vote, which was wholly at the cost of the Congress(I). The Congress(I) could manage only 8.14 per cent of the vote and five seats. This was the same number of seats it bagged in 1991, but with a vote share of 18.3 per cent. Its performance remained equally dismal in the 1996 and 2002 Assembly elections, with a vote share of 8.35 per cent and 8.96 per cent respectively, while that of S.P. got 21.80 per cent and 25.37 per cent respectively.

In the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, the S.P. secured 24.86 per cent of the vote. The BSP got 22.08 per the BJP 27.64 per cent and the Congress(I) 14.72 per cent. One reason for this voting pattern was that OBC voters moved to the S.P. and the BJP from the Congress(I) and Dalits went to the BSP. Even the minorities deserted the Congress(I). Upper-caste Hindus had already shifted base to the BJP. This left the Congress(I) with no vote base.

Looking at the caste-based support, the minorities too started voting tactically and that was one of the reasons for the success of the S.P. and the BSP. While the S.P. commanded the support of the numerically strong Yadavs, the BSP had the consolidated support of Dalits. The same trend has continued since then, with each caste group voting along expected lines.

But do these parties, which enjoy a dominant role in politics, have a national vision at all? For the record, while the BSP’s national vision is sarvjan ka hit (welfare of all), the S.P. dreams of an India "with the N-bomb so that it has the strategic balance in its favour" and a "global government and a world without boundaries", says the S.P. president and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav. It was a measure of its increasing political importance that with its tally of 16 seats in 1996, the S.P. got to occupy crucial ministerial portfolios such as Defence and Telecommunications in the United Front government. But no matter how much Mulayam Singh speaks of his "socialist world view", his imprint on national politics has remained as that of the man who foiled Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi’s attempt to become Prime Minister in 1999.

"The Samajwadi Party is the largest party from the State which sends the largest number of MPs. Its political intervention cannot be ignored. But it is difficult to say whether it has left any imprint on national politics yet," said Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet. According to Surjeet, the S.P.’s activities have remained confined to the State so far. But he concedes that every party playing a role at the national level has to "operate within a certain framework, which nobody can break".

Political observers, however, agree that Mulayam Singh redefined the concept of secularism by his vigorous protection of the Babri Masjid in 1990 even at the risk of earning the wrath of the majority community. In fact, it was his active espousal of secularism, as opposed to the Congress(I)’s passive approach that allowed the unlocking of the Babri Masjid and the performance of shilanyas, which resulted in Muslims shifting loyalty to the S.P.

At the State level, the S.P. has remained a major player since the 1993 Assembly elections, but the fact that it could rule only briefly, from 1993 to 1995, that too together with the BSP, has meant that the S.P. has still to make its presence felt. Numerically, the S.P. has arrived, but it still has to go a long way to establish itself as a party espousing a particular ideology, championing the cause of the State taking advantage of its vantage position at the national level.

As far as the BSP is concerned, it has been so fickle-minded about its alliances that its role as an interventionary power at the national level has remained limited. The party came into prominence in 1993 when it joined hands with the S.P. But the two fell out in 1995.

The BSP joined hands with the BJP in 1995 but this arrangement did not last even for a year. In the 1996 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections the BSP joined hands with the Congress(I). It improved its vote share from 8.7 per cent and no seats in the 1991 elections to 20.40 per cent with six seats in 1996. But because its tally remained the same in the Assembly (67) and it could not form the government, this alliance broke. The BSP then joined hands with the BJP yet again in the by-now infamous "six-monthly rotational chief ministership" arrangement. Even this did not last long. After the 2002 Assembly elections, the party joined hands yet again with the BJP, but the government fell again after a year.

The BSP’s guiding principle so far has been to pursue the policy that takes it to power somehow or the other. This, however, has ensured that the party is reduced to just a pressure group at the national level.

See online : Frontline


Pic 1: AKHILESH KUMAR ; Samajwadi Party president and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav.

Pic 2: RAJESH KUMAR SINGH/AP ; BSP leader Mayawati.

in Frontline, volume 21 - Issue 08, April 10 - 23, 2004.

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