The emergence of regional political parties in India’s political spectrum is one of the most important political developments in the post-independence era. Regional parties have had a big impact for almost three decades and are still playing a crucial role in government formation, both in Parliament and in Assemblies. It will not be off the mark to state that this is the era of co-existence of national and regional parties. This is one of the main reasons why Prime Minister Narendra Modi even after getting an absolute majority continued to take regional alliance partners along.

At present, India is governed by national parties – Indian National Congress (INC), and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — and many strong regional parties (see graph). A closer look on the co-existence of national and regional parties gives us three set of States.

 

Charismatic Leadership
First, there are States such as Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh which are mostly governed by the national parties – INC and BJP, and regional parties have very little or no say in these States. Second, there are States like Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Odisha and Bihar, where regional parties are stronger than the national parties. Third, in States like Jharkhand and Karnataka regional parties are not very strong and need the help of the national parties to form government.

The regional parties, irrespective of the State they come from, were formed by charismatic leaders who enjoyed unprecedented regional following and cult status. Here again, these leaders can be defined in two categories – caste-based leaders and region-based leaders. A set of these mass leaders like Deve Gowda, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati enjoy a loyal base of specific caste, religion or belief system and the other set of leaders like K Chandrashekhar Rao, Naveen Patnaik, Parkash Singh Badal, N Chandrababu Naidu and M Karunanidhi enjoy the status of flag bearer of regional pride and identity.

Most of these leaders could not grow beyond their vote bank and over the years have not reinvented themselves to gain additional votes. Leaders who enjoyed a loyal base of specific caste, religion or belief system have 20-25% of the vote share and those who are the flag bearer of regional pride mostly enjoy 30-40% of the vote share. That makes the positioning of regional pride and identity stronger than the positioning based on a specific caste, or belief system.

Rise of Regional Parties
If we evaluate the emergence of the regional parties, we observe that the big reasons for the formation of regional parties had been the resentment of the locals over the treatment received from the Central government, rise in the ambition of the regional leaders, rise in the regional pride and local issues, and resentment against the central party leadership. The rise of the regional parties is not a recent phenomenon; this trend started in the early 60s.

The first 60 years of independence saw the Congress being in power at the Centre. And during the first four decades, the central leadership was held mostly by the Gandhi-Nehru family and the States were managed by the Congress stalwarts who enjoyed mass following at the regional and State level.

The situation in the South Indian States started to change in the 60s. The politics of Tamil Nadu began witnessing a rise in discomfort with the central leadership, increase in the sentiments of regional pride and rise in the ambition of regional leaders. These factors triggered various regional movements that led to the rise of Dravidian parties.

This was the beginning of a trend, which caught on in many States and in the years that followed saw the emergence of caste and religion-based political parties, led by ambitious regional leaders with a mass following in their areas. It will not be wrong to say that most of the regional parties that emerged in the 80s and 90s actually trace their origins to national parties, either the INC or Janata Dal. The other set of regional parties were formed in search of statehood or identity.

We will explore each category of the regional parties in the second part of the piece appearing tomorrow.