Debating India


Federal Power

Friday 1 April 2005

IT IS A sign of the restless state of present-day politics that the Samajwadi Party led by Mulayam Singh has spread its wings across the Vindhyas to Karnataka. If the southward expansion of the Hindi heartland party is puzzling at first glance, so is the fact that the SP’s State unit is headed by the former Karnataka Chief Minister, S. Bangarappa. Undoubtedly, this is a marriage of convenience. Mr. Bangarappa may help raise the political profile of the SP in Karnataka; in turn he will hope to benefit from the party’s admittedly vast resource base. In May 2004, the former Telugu Desam Party MP, Jayaprada, contested and won the Muslim-dominated Rampur Lok Sabha seat in Uttar Pradesh on an SP ticket. So why does an Uttar Pradesh-based State party — and designated so by the Election Commission — want a piece of the action in faraway South? The answer lies in the growing national aspirations of the so-called regional parties, a phenomenon accelerated by the advent of the coalition era. Regional players have long guided the course of politics in their States. However, thanks to alliance politics, they are today armed with enough clout and influence to keep the Centre in perpetual tension. In 1999, the Vajpayee Government fell by a single vote on the floor of the Lok Sabha because of a last-minute change of tactic by Mayawati.

It is illuminating to look at how the Bahujan Samaj Party shed its provincial image. In 1991, the party was barely known outside Uttar Pradesh. In the next five years it consolidated its position in the State — the period coincides with the chief ministerial tenures of Mayawati — even as it began to take tentative steps towards an all-India future. In the 1998 general election, the BSP achieved a breakthrough by winning recognition as a national party. In the years since, the party has ventured into more and more States and, while not bagging many seats, acquired a much-feared reputation for snatching away valuable Dalit votes. In 1996, the BSP contested 210 Lok Sabha seats across 16 States. In 2004, it contested the most number of Lok Sabha seats by any party — 435 spread over 25 States. In other words, the party’s intention was as much to demonstrate its power by damaging other contestants as to try and win seats. The data also bear out the SP’s expansionary quest. In 1996, it contested 111 seats across 13 States. The corresponding figures for the 14th general election were 237 seats and 23 States.

There is no small irony here. If coalition compulsions have forced national parties to yield space to their allies, the same compulsions dictate that prospective allies increase their space in order to maximise their bargaining potential. The latter trend has resulted in two kinds of expansion. The first is of course the movement of State parties towards other States. Consider the crucial roles played by the Nationalist Congress Party and the United Goan Democratic Party in the formation of the Jharkhand Government. Neither party has roots in local Jharkhand politics. Equally significant is the move by the so-called identity-based parties to transcend their narrow caste image. Only five of the BSP’s 19 Lok Sabha MPs are Dalits. It would be easy to bemoan the fragmentation that this fierce political competition represents. The recent Bihar election saw a drastic fall in the vote shares of the political parties and of many winning candidates. The resultant instability has not augured well for government formation. Yet the process is inevitable in a polity that is experiencing deep social and political churning.

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