Adapted from presented at a seminar on Understanding Indian Politics at the Dept. of Politics and Public Admn., University of Pune, Pune, Jan. 2000.
In the first of the series on regional parties of northeast, we present a background of the phenomena of regional parties.
With the decline of Congress Indian political process witnessed coalition politics and rise of smaller, regional parties to prominence at the national level politics. This trend didn’t see Congress being replaced by any single party. It resulted in regional formations being the center of the emerging party system.
There are various ways of identifying a regional party. Parties with regional ideology which thrives on invocation of regional pride are termed regional parties. In case of northeast India Parties like Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) can be termed as regional parties. Also, parties which enjoy considerable support only in one state or region despite having an all- India perspective can also be termed a regional party. Nationalist Congress Party, Janata Dal United may be cited as examples. These ‘regional’ parties have played an important role in the political developments that unfolded in the nineties.
Regional parties began to enter into national level politics since 1977. The Akali Dal and DMK were partners in the then Janata government although; the Janata Party had a clear majority (295 seats). This was the first time that regional parties shared power at the national level. Once Congress was back in power, regional parties were again pushed into the corner.
In the subsequent years it was non-Congressism that brought many regional parties together. That resulted in the formation of the National Front (NF) in 1988 which did not met much success. But a new era of partnership between all–India parties and regional parties had begun in 1977 was strengthened.
Since 1996, regional parties have become indispensable in the formation of government at the national level. They have been important partners in all the coalitions that came to power after 1996. Besides, numerical strength of the regional parties has considerably increased, with a sizable vote share being captured by regional parties. First in the United Front government, and then in the BJP led National Democratic Alliance and Congress led United Progressive Alliance, regional parties have held the liver of control.
Despite all of the wonderful phenomenon that happened in the favour of regional parties, the regional parties from the northeast remained mostly ignored. The major factor obviously being their inability to play the role of kingmaker due to less number of seats.
The major regional parties from the northeast which dominate the scenario as per the above classification include the states of Manipur, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Sikkim. Another test of the prominence of regional parties would be their vote share. In Manipur and Sikkim, regional parties poll 67 and 95 per cent votes respectively. In Sikkim the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front won all the assembly seats in the assembly elections 2009. It also holds the lone Lok Sabha seat from the state.
If we take the case of Sikkim, there is a clear case of personality driven party centered around one leader. However, to fit in a democratic set up, such parties resort to a combination of regional and non-regional arguments in order to explain their raison d’être to the electorate.
They invoke regional pride, regional identity, regional culture, history and language. Here we find the various demands being supported and denied by various political formations. The demand for Gorkhaland is the most potent and successful example of this.
Regional parties of the northeast mostly combine identity issue with autonomy or statehood demands. Suhas Palshikar argues that regional parties can easily identify with the different sections in the regional society. Since their appeal for identity appeals intelligentsia and the masses alike. Even the materially dominant sections of the society benefit from this.