Regional Parties Are Alive and Kicking Harder, Congress Needs to Worry

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The assembly results show the collective role of regional parties will become more important in national politics as the country approaches the 2019 general election.

Mamata Banerjee and J. Jayalalitha Credit: PTI

Mamata Banerjee and J. Jayalalitha beat anti-incumbency quite decisively. Credit: PTI

The big message coming out of the four assembly election results is that the electorate is willing to reward political parties who are close to the people and truly cater to their basic needs. The most significant victories are those of the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu and the Trinamool Congress in Bengal, both beating anti-incumbency quite decisively. Although critics have denounced the excessive welfarism pursued by J. Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee, there is a need to study how the well- targeted and executed welfare programmes by both chief ministers had great resonance with the voters, especially younger women, in both states. It is important to note that such welfare spending has come at a time when the the economy has generally been slowing, unemployment growing and rural incomes decelerating. While dal prices soar around the country, Jayalalithaa decides to supply dal at 30 rupees per kilo, besides free rice and running several hundred Amma kitchens for the poor.

Banerjee also took her cabinet members to interact with the people at the block level (conducting 105 block visits) and designed rural welfare schemes, which seemed to have worked well. Her welfare programme specifically targeted women, with education scholarships worth 25,000 rupees given to girls at 18 years to deter them from dropping out of school earlier. Villagers in Bengal told this writer the scheme was working well. They also spoke about new roads and electricity connections delivered by the government. Interestingly, Banerjee got a massive 165 plus seats – a simple majority by itself – from rural Bengal alone, which was once the Left stronghold. Shockingly, the CPI(M) got less than the Congress in rural Bengal, triggering a debate whether the Left got it totally wrong in going with the Congress, which ate into its partner’s vote.

Overall, Banerjee increased her vote share by 7 percentage points to 47%. The BJP lost 7 percentage points vote share compared to its Lok Sabha performance, and the Left also lost a few percentage points of its vote share.

Of course, large sections of urban Bengal were quite disenchanted with Banerjee’s authoritarian ways but that doesn’t seem to have mattered in the overall scheme of things.

Jayalalithaa’s victory is far more creditable as she created history by beating anti-incumbency for the first time in more than 30 years. And she did this with aplomb. She went all alone and took a big risk in doing so. The DMK may have done better if M. Karunanidhi had clearly spelt out M.K. Stalin as his successor, but that would have created other problems within his family.

Assam is a big gain for the BJP, which got a simple majority on its own and struck great alliances with the regional outfits. The BJP victory could largely be attributed to the anti-incumbency faced by Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government and partly to the identity politics – anti foreigner sentiment – the BJP cleverly played to trump the ruling party. The BJP would make a big mistake to interpret this as an endorsement of divisive politics at the national level as also in the upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh.

Kerala swung to the Left Democratic Front as predicted by most exit polls. The BJP is happy to have increased its presence in Kerala where the RSS has worked relentlessly. However, in a state with 45% Muslim and Christian population, its coming to power on its own is quite remote.

At the national level, the election results signify a further strengthening of regional parties. Their role collectively will become more important in national politics as we approach 2019. If Banerjee or Jayalalithaa had won feeble victories, the BJP may have been emboldened at the Centre to be politically more aggressive. Note how Banerjee, post-victory, told the media confidently that she would seek cooperation from other regional leaders like Nitish Kumar, Arvind Kejriwal, Navin Patnaik, Jayalalithaa, Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav at the national level. She doesn’t fundamentally trust Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. She has not forgotten the way the Centre tried to let loose the CBI against her party some time ago.

The Congress will have to deeply introspect why it is losing state after state. It has to shed its instrumental approach, and bring consistency and ideological clarity to its thought process. One could argue that the Congress has seen its worst, and from 2017 onward, it could well benefit from the three-term anti-incumbency the BJP would certainly face in Gujarat, Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. However, the Congress cannot take this for granted and will have to work smartly to reap the anti-incumbency.

Overall, at the national level, the Congress and the BJP together are not likely to break their glass ceiling – roughly 50% of the national vote share. The regional parties steadfastly retain the remaining 50% of the national vote share. This only tells us that either the BJP or the Congress will have to depend on the regional outfits to come to power and govern this diverse nation. This also remains our best insurance against the Sangh Parivar’s divisive agenda.

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