Why regional federation is bound to fail
History is cyclical because its ghosts never depart forgotten battlefields. Before Islamic and Western invasions changed the demographics and cultural fabric of India, the country was a geographic conglomeration of kingdoms, principalities and feudatories with a common cultural bond.
Cultural consonance, however, didn’t prevent the perpetuation of ancient, bitter rivalries and innumerable wars fought in the name of rival kings: Shakas and Satavahanas, Cholas and Pandyas, Rajputs and Marathas.
Ironically, it was first the Mughal Empire, and then the British, which kept Indian states united as a single entity to loot their riches and convert populations. They incorporated kings, generals and native armies into their forces to fight their own countrymen.
The endless combat between national parties and regional outfits is the atavism of old India’s ethos in New India. The Congress and BJP represent a national political commonwealth, which replicates the guile of long-gone imperia to control or engulf regional fiefdoms.
The defection of the Shinde faction and the subsequent erosion of the original Shiv Sena, and the later desertion of Ajit Pawar from the NCP is the same toolkit in action. The BJP, aping Indira Gandhi’s playbook, has toppled state governments of its opponents and installed their own leaders on the throne.
The current consortium of Opposition conclaves supported by the Congress, and involving regional political forces, is bound to fail as a group of ideological buddies against the saffron monolith. The reason is that none of the regional outfits, except perhaps the Dravidian parties and the BSP, have a specific ideology beyond paying lip service to the tired tropes of socialism and secularism.
The Lohia-ite political upbringing of Nitish Kumar, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad was only a launching pad to grab power and unleash the dishonourable politics of caste and community. Lalu ran a corrupt semi-criminal enterprise.
Mulayam Singh presided over decades of goonda raj in Uttar Pradesh, taking the Indira Gandhi template to heart to defeat the Congress: when the national party’s fortunes in the state showed signs of decline, the induction of musclemen and bahubalis in politics began.
Neither Lalu nor Mulayam’s sons, who now operate their family-run parties, have any pretensions to the canons of their parents. Mamata Banerjee’s TMC is a linear grassroots transformation of the Congress and Communists.
Nitish, who romanced both the BJP and RJD, has no ideology whatsoever except the chair and now wants to become the prime minister. The khichdi of acronyms that represent NCP, NC, TRS, TDP, PMK, AINRC, AAP, JMM, LJP, BJD, PJP, JSS, RSP and Shiv Sena are mostly commanded by individuals and their clans.
Their ideology is their own version of regional pride, as opposed to the national nature of the big parties. Then there is the north-eastern brigade which follows a similar principle: MNF, UDP, NPP, NPF, PJP, LJP (RV), RPI (A), UDP, AITC, VPP, HSPDP—you get the picture.
All of them lead their states in alliance with national parties. Empires collapse through the ages, but history midwives them in other forms that suit the temper of the times.
Once, regional giants played a national role: Kamaraj, Karunanidhi, Jayalalithaa, Biju Patnaik et al; Sharad Pawar is the last of the veterans to survive Indira Gandhi’s machinations. Make no mistake, the divide-and-rule doctrine has only become stronger since Independence. Only the players have changed.