Former prime minister and Janata Dal(S) chief Deve Gowda recently said his party is in talks with the BJP to work out a seat-sharing deal in Karnataka for the 2024 election. The veteran politician and supremo of the family-based party which is on a decline in Karnataka politics said the alliance with the BJP is meant to save the JD(S) and appealed to voters to keep the regional party afloat. Gowda’s concern for his party that did badly in the 2019 general election as well as in the 2023 assembly election in Karnataka, its worst performance since its birth in 1999, and his appeal to voters should be read in the context of the falling clout of regional satraps and their parties at the national level.
While many regional parties are still a formidable force in their respective states, since 2014 the JD(S) example, in many ways, is the story of many regional parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party, Shiromani Akali Dal, Shiv Sena and Telugu Desam Party. Having been thrown off-gear with the rise of the BJP and unable to have their way without antagonising India’s new predominant party, the clout of regional parties in political affairs at the Centre has diminished considerably. Some of them even face an uncertain future with their diminishing performance in state and national elections.
Whether the post-1989 normal of regional parties asserting their way in national politics is over is difficult to say, but a decisive shift away from regional or single-state parties is obvious. The objective behind BJP’s stated goal of a “Congress Mukt Bharat” has not merely been to increase its electoral dominance but, as political observers have said, is more of a battle of ideas. The end goal is to discredit the Congress’ secular-nationalist credentials and bring its majoritarian nationalist project to the centre. To take the project to fruition, it logically follows that the BJP’s next target are the regional and single-state smaller parties.
In the 2019 general election, it appears that many regional parties did hold their ground, particularly in the South. But the numbers hide their shrinking space, voice, and influence, as also the pressure they are under to remain electorally relevant. The implications of the ascendance and electoral dominance of the BJP for the regional parties, federalism, and Indian politics in general has been a diminished voice in political affairs at the Centre for most non-BJP parties. This was not the case before 2014 — particularly the period between 1989 and 2014 which was characterised by the receding hegemony of the Congress and ascendance of the BJP and the Janata Dal, the latter for a brief period, though.
The splintering of the Janata Dal into regional parties, as also that of the Congress in some states like the West Bengal and the undivided Andhra Pradesh, led to the creation of national coalition governments in which regional and state-based parties were key to the formation and survival of governments at the Centre. In this period, state-based parties and regional satraps held key ministerial portfolios and had a greater say in national level decision making. Successive poll outcomes suggest that the power and influence of regional parties is inversely proportional to the electoral strength of the two national parties — the Congress and BJP.
Between 1996 and 2014, neither the Congress nor BJP was able to form the government on its own at the Centre. Therefore, their dependence on regional parties put the latter in the driver’s seat in national level affairs. This increased their stakes in the coalition government system. The 1996, 1998, 1999, 2004 and 2009 general elections all confirmed this trend — the Union could only be run with the support of regional parties. Coalitions, it seemed, were here to stay as the Congress or the BJP could only form the government if they showed willingness to accommodate state-based parties.
The 2014 Lok Sabha election overturned this trend. Though it seemed a one-off event then, the 2019 election saw the BJP winning with even bigger majority. Thus, from a position of power where they called the shots, regional parties lost their clout and bargaining power. In 2018 a few regional party leaders like K Chandrashekhar Rao of BRS, Mamata Banerjee of TMC, Chandrababu Naidu of TDP, Akhilesh Yadav of SP and Mayawati of BSP attempted to push the cause of regional parties that would help them push to the centre-stage and recover the space ceded to the BJP. But their efforts to position themselves as influential actors at the Centre proved futile with BJP’s massive victory in 2019, which rolled over everything that posed a challenge.
So, is a new normal emerging, where the era of regional parties playing the swing force at the Centre ending? While a lot of attention has been paid to the crisis the Congress went through between 2014 and 2022, not enough attention has been paid to the state of the rest of the Opposition, particularly the regional parties which have been fighting a battle to remain relevant in national politics. Broadly regional parties can be categorised in three groups. The ones like the DMK and YSRCP who dominate all polls; others like TMC and BJD who are dominant in state polls but face a tougher challenge in general elections and the third category is of parties that are struggling at all levels like the JD(S).
This is not to suggest that it is all over for regional parties. But in the churn that national polity has gone through over the past decade, a fundamental shift has happened in the direction politics has taken. The emergence of BJP as a dominant party, much like the Congress till 1989, has posed a serious challenge to regional parties. Though dominance is not a permanent phenomenon and can also unravel over a period, playing the waiting game may not be the best strategy for regional parties. Instead, they need to return to their roots, widen their social base, improve their governance record, and strengthen their organisation to fight pan-India parties. However, with the Congress now looking on the ascendance path, the important question is: what will happen to regional parties if the grand old party increases its vote share in the next general election without cutting into the BJP’s base?
The writer is a senior independent Mumbai-based journalist. He tweets at @ali_chougule