|MARGINAL NO MORE?
Will India's Hindu nationalist government walk a moderate line?
March 20, 1998
in this forum:
Other political parties claim to have religious roots, but are not called fundamentalists. Why the double standard? Why is the BJP support of a uniform civil law considered an anti-minority position? What is the significance of small, independent parties in this election? Will the BJP embrace multinational organizations? Is a there any reason for minorities to worry about a moderate BJP government? Question:
The support of small, independent parties seem to have played a critical role in this year's election. Is this regionalism a new phenomenon in Indian politics? What is the significance of the growing importance of small parties in Indian politics?
Professor Varshney responds:
Regionalism is not a new phenomenon in Indian politics, but regional parties have never played such an important role. The states of Tamil Nadu, Jammu and Kashmir, the Northeast, and even Maharashtra have long had regional parties -- since the 1950s and 1960s. Basically, the decline of the Congress party has led to two sorts of political developments: the rise of regional parties, and the rise of BJP. Both have grown at the expense of the Congress party since the late 1980s.
Professor Brass responds:
Regionalism is not a new phenomenon in Indian politics. Rather, a huge new space for its manifestation has been opened up by the decline of the Congress, the formerly dominant party in Indian politics for nearly 50 years, and by the failure of any other single party to occupy that space. No party or any compatible collection of parties in contemporary Indian politics is in a position to fill that space. The BJP would like to fill it on its own, but it is a long way from doing so.
The principal significance of the increased importance of smaller and regional parties--aside from its consequences for stable government formation--is the cumulative force that their existence provides against further centralization of power in the Indian Union and for its decentralization. Many of these parties want more powers for the states in India, less interference from New Delhi. The Left parties that are called in India Janata (People's) and Samajwadi (Socialist) parties--and also the larger of the two Communist parties that are predominant in West Bengal and important in Kerala--are generally either sympathetic to such decentralization or do not oppose it. The BJP, whose ideology has always favored a strong, centralized, homogenous Hindu nation-state, has now been forced to adapt itself to a coalition with a wide range of such parties.
This is one of the great fault-lines in Indian politics with considerable potential for conflict in the future, that is, between centralizers and decentralizers. I have always believed that the long-term tendencies favor pluralism, regionalism, and decentralization in Indian politics and that such tendencies are more conducive to the peace and unity of the country than continuing centralization of power and policy-making in New Delhi.
Professor Embree responds:
There are differences of opinion over whether or not regional parties are a new phenomenon, but I am inclined to argue that they are not really so- Regionalism was masked at earlier periods. In the 1920's, for example, the Justice Party was very strong in South India, but the appeal of the Indian national Congress for all-India support against the British lessened its support. This revived after Independence in the various forms of the DMK, and it is noteworthy that one of its offshoots, the AIDMK, led by the controversial Jayalalita gave its support to the BJP. In the nationalist phase, before independence, there were many great all-India figures, of whom Nehru and Gandhi are only the most famous, but they had the support of strong regional figures in the Indian National Congress. Nehru dominated politics, and then his successor, Indira Gandhi deliberately set out to weaken regional or state Congress leaders and to centralize power.
This gave the opportunity for regional leaders, especially in the South, to organize and gain regional power, In UP and Bihar, the parties contending for power are not really regional, but something much more interesting, alliances of the large lower caste groups against the old dominance of the upper castes. Perhaps this is a symptom of developing class antagonisms in India. It is ironic that the Marxist parties in India have been almost always lead by upper caste and upper class people; in UP and Bihar the leadership of the dominant political parties is both low caste and low class, in terms of education and wealth. This may be one of the most significant things happening in India. It will be interesting to see how the BJP, with its upper caste and upper class leadership (very similar to that of the Congress as well as the Marxist parties) can make an appeal to them while it is rooted in devotion to the "high" culture of the Indian past in which the lower castes did not share.
One guesses that from now on, more on the European model than on the British and American, small parties will play a significant role in bargaining for power. This will probably force major parties to change their agendas to gain support, This had already happened, as when Mrs. Gandhi risked alienating Muslim supporters by seeking high caste votes. The Congress under Rajiv Gandhi also moderated its 'anti-Hindu right rhetoric" so as not to alienate Hindus.
There is no real evidence that small parties are necessarily bad for a country: they may in fact force accommodations and compromises and prevent one party becoming dominant and corrupt as the Indian National Congress did.