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Why the Rise of Regional Parties Isn’t So Bad

Adam Ziegfeld
October 11, 2010

Over the past fifteen years, the rise of regional political parties has been one of the most important trends in India’s electoral politics. Whereas, thirty years ago, these parties were marginal players on the national scene, today, they are fixtures in national-level governments. Most observers have greeted the rise of regional parties with suspicion; one source of concern is the belief that regional parties reflect narrow regional identities that threaten the integrity of the Indian state. A second concern is that regional parties are thought to bring about instability. However, the evidence in support of both claims is slim, suggesting that the negative influence of regional parties may be overstated.

Many believe that successful regional parties raise the specter of secessionist conflict or that they are evidence of a failed nation-building project. This belief rests on the assumption that voters vote for regional parties because they privilege their regional identities over an Indian national identity. Based on the available evidence, this belief is flawed. The 2004 Indian National Election Study asked respondents to agree or disagree with the statement: “We should be loyal to our own region first and then to the country.” Although a majority of respondents agreed, attitudes about loyalty to region and country do not correlate with vote choice. Across all major states in India, those who voted for regional parties were no more likely than supporters of national parties to believe that they should be loyal to their region first. Furthermore, the percentage of respondents who agreed with the statement did not correlate with the presence of regional parties. In other words, states in which many respondents think they should be loyal to their region first are not necessarily states in which regional parties do well in elections.

The assumption that regional parties indicate weak support for an Indian national identity is also problematic because it presumes that all regional parties articulate a similar message. In fact, most of the regional parties that burst onto the scene in the 1990s actually trace their origins to national parties, either Congress or the now defunct Janata Dal. Many of these parties fail to make regional grievances, demands, or identities critical to their messages, and some, such as the Nationalist Congress Party or Samajwadi Party, openly harbor national ambitions. In most western democracies, regional parties typically arise in response to political conflicts between a state and the central government or between a minority ethnic group in one region and the majority ethnic group dominant in the rest of the country. Most regional parties in India do not fit this mold, arising instead in response to political conflicts and rivalries within states, such as those between Assamese Hindus and Bengali migrants in Assam, Sikhs and Hindus in Punjab, or Kammas and Reddis in Andhra Pradesh.

Threats to India’s unity and national identity certainly exist. Insurgency is a very real problem. However, with the partial exception of some factions of the Akali Dal in Punjab, serious insurgent threats seldom emerge out of political parties active in electoral politics. Politicians rarely become insurgents. Rather, insurgents frequently turn into politicians. In some of India’s more restive regions, the emergence of new regional parties more often reflects the Indian state’s cooptation of threat than the likelihood of new conflict. Though concerns about India’s territorial integrity may be well-founded, regional parties are rarely part of the problem.

When examining the second allegation, that regional parties produce political instability, it should first be noted that national-level governments have indeed been increasingly unstable since regional parties have grown in number and prominence. Mercurial leaders of regional parties seem to hold national parties hostage by threatening to topple governments if their demands are not met. Blaming regional parties, however, misidentifies the true sources of political instability.

India’s instability is not a function of regional parties as much as it is a function of coalition politics. Any time that a governing coalition will fall without the support of one of its members, a party can threaten to bring down the government. As it so happens, India has very few national parties – one of which usually heads the government – and a large number of regional parties, so troublesome coalition partners tend to be regional parties. This need not be, however, as a national party on which the government’s majority depends can be just as much of a threat to political stability as any regional party. Indeed, Congress – the country’s most national party – has brought down governments on several occasions. Additionally, factional fights within national parties – akin to fighting between different coalition partners – has, in three separate instances, led to party splits that have prompted moments of deep political uncertainty.

Regional parties are, furthermore, not to blame for ushering in the coalition era. Congress’ decline and the fracturing of the old Janata Party ensured that no single party could win a majority on its own. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the beneficiaries of Congress’ electoral losses were national parties, the BJP and Janata Dal, not regional parties. The rise of regional parties in the 1990s did not truly begin until well after Congress’ decline and the advent of the coalition era. Though coalition politics has certainly benefited regional parties, they were not the ones to bring it about.

Coalition government is not inherently destabilizing. Multi-party coalitions offer stable governance in a number of countries; however, in many of these countries, ideological considerations keep instability at bay. For instance, a conservative religious party is unlikely to bring down a center-right government since the party’s voters might punish it for joining a center-left coalition or for helping to bring such a government to power. In India – where personalism, caste loyalties, patronage, and vote-buying often figure into elections – such ideological considerations are rarely at play. As a result, parties can credibly threaten to quit one alliance and join hands with another without fear that the electorate will punish them for their ideological inconstancy. Parties have no reason not to foment instability since they rarely pay a price at election time. Thus, the sources of India’s instability, particularly in the 1990s, have not been regional parties, but rather coalition politics in a context in which policy debates and ideological considerations do not drive electoral politics. Regional parties are not responsible for this state of affairs; they have simply exploited it.

Observers of Indian politics often come away with a depressingly long list of the challenges that India faces. Although secessionist insurgency on the periphery and coalitional instability likely appear on any such list, the rise of regional parties should not.

Adam Ziegfeld is a Postdoctoral Prize Research Fellow at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. He received his Ph.D. in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2009.He can be reached at adam.ziegfeld@nuffield.ox.ac.uk


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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