It is hard to believe that the National Democratic Alliance has under its belt as many as thirty-two parties. That makes for an unmanageable cacophonous crowd. This indicates the fragmentation of the polity, marking the growing sway of identity politics at the federal level. Minuscule caste and regional interests have led to the rise of more and more one-man outfits.

The phenomenon first came to light in Tamil Nadu once the rival DMKs began to lose their grip on the electorate and needed that something- plus to take them past the half-way mark in the State legislature. Accommodating these interests entailed costs in allocation of resources, making it hard for a government to take a broader view of budgetary spending.

Worse, it exacerbated caste and intra- and inter-regional rivalries. Soon the mushroom growth of small caste-based parties was seen in the northern States as well. In UP, while Mayawati and Mulayam Singh claim to represent Dalits and OBCs of all stripes, the fact is that their core support-base consists of Jatavs and Yadavs, respectively.

Balmikis by and large do not consider the BSP as their own party while non-Yadav OBCs have floated their own separate outfits. Their influence might be restricted to a district or two, but if you are a national party you would feel obliged to embrace them in order to win elections. The BJP alliance in UP Assembly is a cocktail of many such small caste-based outfits.

One of them was so unhappy at being denied Lok Sabha tickets as per his own estimate of his ground-strength that he rebelled against the Yogi Adityanath Government, working to defeat the NDA candidates. The day the polling ended, the chief minister sacked him. However he took care to fill the ministerial vacancy so caused by appointing a caste-brother of the sacked minister in order to retain the support of the electorally significant community in pockets of eastern UP.

Today’s fragmented polity is a far cry from the time when the Congress Party was the sole dominant force in the country, with all other parties often failing to get into two figures in Parliament. That was an unhappy extreme which inflicted a lot of damage on the country. The growth of the BJP beginning early 90s promised a viable national-level alternative to the monolithic Congress.

The hoped-for two- party polity with one ruling and the other providing strong opposition in the best traditions of a check- and- balance system, however, failed to materialise. This was because even as the BJP registered growth, the Congress began to slip sharply. Its decline was the single important reason for the rise of small, caste-based parties.

Since 1967, when the DMK first came to power in Tamil Nadu, the Congress has relied on one or the other DMK to stay afloat in the State. In Kerala, a State where in the early decades after Independence, it was a major force, it is now obliged to be part of a wider coalition of some half-a-dozen parties. In Karnataka, it is so weakened that it has installed the State-centric JD(S) in command of the governing coalition.

In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana it is struggling to mark its presence in both Assembly and parliamentary elections. Even in the East, its position is none too happy, shrinking fast both in Odisha and West Bengal. In Maharashtra, it has had to hold the hand of Sharad Pawar to meet the challenge of BJP-Shiv Sena. And in the States where it was in a position to take on BJP on its own, its grip is slipping.

Even in last year’s Assembly elections, despite long anti-incumbency against the BJP governments it barely scraped through in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, though in Chhattisgarh it did beat the BJP convincingly. The point we are driving at is that though we do not want the Grand Old Party to die, we still want it to introspect for its own and the nation’s sake in order to check the fragmentation of the polity.

A two–party system may not be advisable given the wide diversity, the geographical expanse, socio-economic differences et al, but presenting a clear choice to the voters based on national interests rather than local and municipal considerations requires that we have two or three national parties.

The Congress Party can still summon its considerable energy and experience to provide a nation-wide alternative to the rising BJP provided it breaks from the stranglehold of the Dynasty. Otherwise, the wish of a TV commentator who wants the Congress to die may yet be fulfilled.