Time to rethink regional party agenda

There are certain individuals and personalities on which the country is extremely divided. One such issue on which there are strong divisions, is the role of regional parties in India’s polity. While those who support them can see no wrong in their functioning, skeptics on the other hand feel that regional parties are responsible for the policy paralysis prevalent in India. It would be only fair to do an assessment of important shortcomings as well as positives of regional outfits in India.
Regional parties draw flak on a number of accounts. 

The primary criticism is that most of these outfits run according to the whims and fancies of one single individual/family, be it the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP) in UP, The JD(U) and RJD in Bihar, the BJD in Orissa, The Trinamool Congress (TMC) in Bengal, National Conference and PDP in Jammu and Kashmir, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in Punjab and off course the AIADMK and DMK in Tamil Nadu.

The second criticism, which these regional parties have to often contend with, is the point that they do not possess a pan-India vision, and the stand they take on economic and security issues is dictated by petty political concerns and not the national interest. Finally ofcourse, it is often believed, that most regional parties believe in populist policies especially dole economics.

If one were to look at all these charges, the first one has some legitimacy, since no dissent is tolerated in any of these individual run, and in certain cases family dominated, political outfits. These regional parties can argue that the Congress Party too encourages sycophancy and off late even the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) electoral campaign is centred to a large degree around the personality of  Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi who is also the head of the party’s campaign committee. Any criticism of Modi is portrayed not just as an insult to Modi or the BJP, but the country as a whole. But such an argument is of no use, because many regional parties arose on the plank of ‘decentralisation’ of political power and were opposed to the ‘Durbari Culture’ promoted by the
Congress Party

The second criticism of regional parties is true to some degree, but then which national party also thinks solely of the national interest, and isn’t Indian national interest a sum total of the interests and needs of all Indian states? Or should it be the sole preserve of New Delhi and some politically dominant states, which either have strong representation in parliament or are economically progressive. After all, if one state progresses economically, and encourages foreign investment it does benefit the whole – or at least large parts – of the country, and not just that state. Similarly, if a particular state faces problems there is a spill over to neighbouring states.

Finally, while it is true that regional parties do milk welfare schemes for political benefits, it is interesting to note two points. Firstly, some of the most effective welfare schemes have emanated from states run by regional parties, they include the mid-day meal scheme of Tamil Nadu. These schemes have been lauded by the centre, and emulated by the central government and other states.
 Second, it is much easier to package economic reform for regional satraps, so while on the one hand you may be populist on certain issues, on the other you can also sell reform and industrialisation by linking it to important issues like job creation. It is for this reason  that certain regional leader are successful in blending reform with populist measures – considered pro-poor.

If one were to look at the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab, Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal in Punjab has balanced populism with some important governance reforms and is also focusing on creating infrastructure and attracting investment to the state.Similarly, while the Tamil Nadu and Bihar Chief Ministers J Jayalalitha and Nitish Kumar may have introduced welfare schemes, they have not done anything to harm the investment climate of their respective states.

It should in fact not be forgotten, that one of the first unabashedly pro-reforms leader was Telugu Desam supremo and erstwhile Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu. While some believe that Naidu’s obsession with modernisation – while ignoring the grass roots – resulted in his defeat in 2004, his focus on information technology and role in turning Hyderabad into ‘Cyberabad’was lauded by the foreign press and recognised by many foreign governments including the US.

Finally, the stance of regional parties on foreign policy issues is dictated by their political interests. While in certain cases, this may go against what is perceived as the ‘national interest’ In other cases, regional parties may have a progressive stance which is very much in sync with the central government, even if it is led by a different party.

There is no better example to illustrate this point than the positive role of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) which is aligned with the BJP led National Democratic  Alliance (NDA) but was ready to support the UPA on the issue of the Indo-US nuclear deal, and has also been on the same page with regard to economic engagement with Pakistan.

Regional parties may have their drawbacks. Yet, it is unfair to blame them for all ills which  plague the country, and even more foolish to under estimate the vision of some regional satraps who are not just shrewd politicians, who possess the ability of adapting to the changing public mood, but are also progressive and pro-reform.

The author is a New Delhi-based columnist
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