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Has India rejected regional parties' jugaad politics?

For the first time in decades, caste, religion and local sentiment have become secondary to issues like unabated inflation, policy paralysis, scams and shrinking job opportunities

Shantanu Bhattacharji  |  New Delhi 

By the evening of May 16, the Lok Sabha elections details will become history. Arguably, the 2014 Lok Sabha polls will be remembered as the Narendra Modi election, regardless of the final result. As a savvy politician, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime minister–in-waiting appears to have read the pulse right. Ironic though it may sound, he repackaged the saffron party’s ‘India Shining’ idea to allure the electorate, while listing out the United Progressive Alliance government’s alleged failures and shortcomings during the past 10 years. At this juncture, it seems tough to predict which party would exactly bag how many seats, though it gives some political insight if you pay attention to which way the wind is blowing.

Several exit polls have found that voters across states, regions and castes consistently raised national issues, such as growth, jobs, corruption and food price inflation. The 2014 Lok Sabha voting indicates that caste affiliations, community identities and even religion to a certain extent have become somewhat secondary to unabated price rise, policy paralysis under the UPA, numerous scams and shrinking job opportunities across the sector. It is, therefore, not altogether unreasonable to think at this stage that the master-key to form the government at the Centre would not be in the hands of regional players. The BJP and its allies will win 249 to 340 seats, according to six exit polls released on Monday, with 272 needed for a majority.

Imaging: Ajay Mohanty

At present, there is a huge disappointment about the performance of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Prime Minister was not in control of his government and that he was subject to remote control. This is the general perception and assessment of the overall persona of Singh among voters barring the Congress Party loyalists. In the past, Singh pointed out the complexities of political management in a coalition era. It was the BJP's strategy to fight the Lok Sabha battle under a unified command (read single power centre) and present the Gujarat Chief Minister as a firm and decisive leader.

“It seems that people have preferred development and good governance to other issues. It is no exaggeration to say that voters have seen a possibility in one person, not even in a party. The primary reason behind this is for the last two consecutive tenures, the government left a lasting impression of fiasco on both governance and developmental front; and that pinch has been felt across the country. There is a strong feeling in India as well as in overseas that India as a brand has declined drastically. And, therefore, for the first time it appears that a national consciousness is coming together deciding in favour of a person / a party which can provide an alternative to the mismanagement by the UPA. Probably, this time electorates have decided to tie up with national parties and ignore the regional ones,” argues A K Verma, professor at Kanpur Christ Church College.

Additionally, as a bloc, the regional players — Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Nitish Kumar, Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Left — unlikely to get a chance to play jugaad (manipulation) politics to stay afloat in power at the national level for the time being. Nevertheless, there is one school of thought that argues that it is too early to say regional parties may stagnate or a full-scale decimation of the regional outfits is imminent at the national politics.

“The importance of the regional parties in the formation of the government will not be less in 2014 as under no circumstances neither of the pan-India (or national parties such as the Congress and the BJP) parties shall muster a majority in the Lok Sabha. Even now three regional parties — Shiromani Akali Dal, Shiv Sena and Telugu Desam Party — are important constituents of the National Democratic Alliance as pre-poll partners. The other regional players shall join the NDA once its political future is secure following the declaration of the poll-outcome. It will thus be another coalition government in which the role of the regional parties shall be indispensable. In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP appears to have consolidated its base mainly because of anti-incumbency sentiments and it has succeeded in mobilising a large chunk of Hindus in its favour following the Muzaffarnagar riots,”observes Bidyut Chakrabarty, professor of political science at University of Delhi.

Undoubtedly, there was a strong anti-incumbency wave in many parts of India and the voters were looking for a viable alternative. Also, the 2014 battle witnessed a new trend: most of those who hit the lotus button (BJP’s symbol) on their electronic voting machines say that their vote is for Modi and not the saffron party. The Aam Aadmi Party is another case in point. The fact remains that it has the potential to become a pan-India alternative. It, however, made a limited success in polarising public opinion in its favour and failed to create an impression on popular consciousness. The nascent party's real measure of success will be in the vote share.

“By nature, civil society activism is sporadic because it is drawn on spontaneous responses. The moment it is organized as a permanent platform, it loses its conceptual sanctity. Delhi witnessed a strong civil society movement around issues of corruption and women safety. The AAP was an outcome of civil society movement though it ceases to be part of civil society activism the moment it became a political party. This is the story in West Bengal where the civil society rose into action following the Nandigram-Singur episode. The civil society activism considerably lost its salience in the context of the Lok Sabha polls largely because the established political parties seem to have appropriated those issues which the civil society activists had raised in the past so they appear to have been outsmarted by the established political parties,” said Chakrabarty.

In a nutshell, India must adopt a wait-and-watch policy till May 16 to know the extent to which the electorate has backed a strong government at the Centre.

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First Published: Tue, May 13 2014. 11:43 IST