Sunday, 29 November 1998

Political Loyalties - the Value of Federalism

(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)

It is a fact of life that a political party or front can secure less than
a quarter of the votes cast and yet come to office. Despite polling
significantly fewer votes than its Hindutva rival, it is the party of
Mulayam Singh Yadav and not that of Kalyan Singh which is in
power in U.P. today. The SJP-BSIP victory confirms the
fragmentation that has come about in the Indian polity, now
divided nationally into four competing streams—the Congress,
the BJP, the Janata Dal and its left allies, and finally the regional
and sectional parties. Each of the four has to compete with the
other three to retain, or expand, its base.

Feudal Roots
With Indian society moving away from its feudal roots to enter
the phase of commercial capitalism, it may not be inappropriate
to use a marketing analogy for the political spectrum and say
that each political party is attempting to increase its ’market
share' at the expense of its rivals. However, just as a marketing
organisation needs a clear picture of its target, Indian political
parties need to recognise the changing realities in the political
market place.

The first change is a loosening of traditional ’brand loyalties',
to use a marketing term again. So far as the national elections are
concerned, this is a process that picked up speed when Indira
Gandhi unilaterally changed the rules of the political game in
1975 by imposing the Emergency and making organised political
structures (including her own) irrelevant. Her preference for
personalised power, as distinct from the consensus-oriented
Congress formula, led to a shift away from her 'brand' that cost
the Congress its hold on power.

The second major change is an increasing pragmatism within 
the electorate, which votes in accordance with the principles of 
enlightened self-interest. It is not abstruse philosophy or universal 
principle that determines voting behaviour, but the price of 
onions or tomatoes. Behind the caste or other sectional appeal of 
parties such as the BSP, the Telugu Desam or the SJP is the 
message that their coming to power will make a positive material 
difference to the lives of the group whose cause they are claiming 
to espouse. 

It is a fact that any society is divided into groups and classes, 
and it is by recognising and cultivating them that the smaller 
political parties build up bases for themselves, usually at the
expense of the mainstream parties that attempt to appeal to
broad aggregates rather than to segments The best example of
such a mainstream party is the Congress, and its recent electoral
history is proof that, just as in marketing the concept of ’niche'
is driving away strategies based on broad-spectrum markets, in
politics the age of the ’niche' electoral segment has finally
arrived. In other words, political parties will now need to
abandon catch-all strategies in favour of more focused messages.

Both the BJP and the Janata Dal are political parties that at
various stages and locations were able to trounce the Congress
by targeting specific segments of the Congress vote bank. In both
these parties, however, there are powerful groups still in the
thrall of the 'mainstream' Congress culture, which would like to
widen the sectional message. In other words, to quit chasing the
niche in favour of the whole. Within the Janata Dal, Ramakrishna
Hegde and Biju Patnaik can be said to represent such a trend,
while within the BJP, the supporters of Atal Behari Vajpayee are
attempting to push the party closer to the mainstream tendency
represented by the Congress.

Unfortunately for such individuals, recent electoral history
confirms the wisdom of the political 'niche marketeers' over
their universalist colleagues. The danger that these marketeers
face, however, comes not from mainstream parties, but from
smaller parties whose sectional messages are even sharper and
more narrowly-focused than their own. While the BJP has thus
far escaped the divisive tendency seen within the Janata Dal, it
is not improbable that hard-line elements may separate from it
and follow their own course.

Small Parties
Does this mean that Indian democracy is fated to witness a
kaleidoscope of small parties, combining and splitting away
from each other? Does this mean that the stability enjoyed by a
single party will soon cease to operate? It need not, provided that
in place of attempting to impose a kind of universality over a
political party, the political leaders favouring a return to the
mainstream see a party not as a homogeneous entity, but as a
group of disparate elements that combine in the manner of a
many-stranded rope. The V. P. Singh formula of a 'federal'
political party, provides an example.

As the largest political party in the country, and one that has
not yet given up its attempts at fashioning a universal message
strong enough to enable it to fend off its 'niche' competitors, the
Congress has a major responsibility in this regard. In the
Nehruvian era, the different units of the Congress functioned
with a wide degree of autonomy, and were therefore able to
formulate policies that were more acceptable to their respective
areas than a broad-spectrum message would have been. Thus the
Congress in Tamil Nadu remained aloof to Hindi while the party
in Uttar Pradesh demanded the spread of the language to all
regions. It was only when Lal Bahadur Shastri imposed uniformity
in 1964-65 and forced the Tamil Nadu Congress government to
take a hard line on the DMK's anti-Hindi agitation that it was
swept out of power in the state in 1967.

More Liberal
Under Indira Gandhi, the 'federal' character of the Congress
disappeared, and the era of nominations arrived with a vengeance.
Rather than come up through the grassroots, the new leaders of
the Congress came from among those who had mastered the art
of wooing the powers that be in Delhi. If one takes the 1971
(garibi hatao) victory as the first successful exploitation of the
materialist tendency then nascent in the Indian voter, it is no
accident that the 1980 victory came at a time when the Congress
was out of office, out of funds and therefore perforce more liberal
in its attitude to the state units.

Two years ago, the long period of 'nomination raj' in the
Congress was brought to an end by holding elections to all
organisational posts. Today there seems to be a return to the
centralised system of the past. In a polity as complex as India, it
is impossible for a single leader to fashion the many subtle
changes in political strategy needed to take account of variations
within the electorate. Rather than a 'high command' decide
whether the Mandalism of a Veerappa Moily or the business-
friendly pragmatism of a Sharad Pawar is more suited to the
political needs of a particular state, it would be better to let the
'market' (i.e. the local party unit) decide.

This is not a call to anarchy. Each broad-based political party
would have a core set of beliefs, allegiance to which would be a
necessary condition of remaining within it. Thus, for example,
belief in secularism would be essential to any member of the 
Congress or the Janata Dal, while a belief in a uniform civil code 
would be necessary for any member of the BJP. However,
outside such 'core' areas, there is scope for freedom of ideological
and organisational choice, and this freedom should be encouraged
rather than curbed.

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