The origin of political parties based on regional, religious or parochial agenda can be traced during the British rule in India. The reorganization of states on linguistic basis after the Independence of the country provided an impetus in formation of political dispensations on the plank of regionalism. The decision of the Congress to implement Hindi as the official language of India in 1950s led to a political backlash in southern states, particularly in Tamil Nadu. The Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK), a regional party advocating Tamil pride, used the anti-Hindi agitation in carving a niche political space in the state. The rise of DMK led to the proliferation of new parties based on cultural identity and anti-Congress-ism in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The implementation of 27 percent quota for OBC in government jobs in 1991 led to a widespread caste conflict and agitations in the country, which led to the rise of regional parties on caste identity in Hindi heartland states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It coincided with the decline of the single party dominance of the Congress in party politics and an era of rainbow political coalitions, as national parties entered into alliance with regional parties in forming a national government in Delhi.

The Congress formed an alliance with regional political parties thrice between 1991 and 2009, while the BJP had to take the support of a handful of smaller parties between 1997 and 2004 in forming the government at the Centre. The regional parties, which were spatially confined to state politics, witnessed a quantum political leap, and were accorded an equal say in national alliances. The role of regional parties has been a mixed baggage, as it played a constructive role in the democratization of national politics. However, it also played an obstructionist role by raising ideological obstacles in the economic reforms pursued by the UPA regime. The stupendous victory of the BJP led by Narendra Modi in 2014 is considered by many as a revival of single party dominance in Indian politics, which would ultimately lead to a collateral decline of regional parties in the country.

The BJP was able to wrest the two largest states of UP and Bihar in 2014 from the regional fold, which reduced the geographical spread of the provincial parties, but their representation in terms of numbers in the lower house remained unchanged. The regional parties won 212 parliamentary seats and aggregated 47 percent vote share in 2014, which was same as in General elections 2009. During NDA II, their bargaining power and influence was reduced, but the saffron party followed the alliance norms and invariably consulted them on critical issues. The BJP has left no stone unturned in stitching pre-poll alliance with a large number of regional parties, which vindicates their continued relevance and in the paradigm of Indian contemporary politics.

The states that will witness a direct face-off between the regional and national parties for political dominance in 2019 elections are Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu. It thus becomes pertinent to glean the political landscape of these states for assessing the electoral fate of the regional parties in the forthcoming elections.

Hindi Heartland States

The 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Uttar Pradesh witnessed a strong ‘Modi wave’ that wiped out the SP and BSP: two prominent regional parties, with the former winning two seats, while the latter drawing a nought. The BJP managed to win 71 out of the 80 parliamentary seats with an impressive vote share of 42.3 percent, its ally Apna Dal won two seats, while the Congress could win two seats in the Gandhi bastion. The Modi wave, which seemed to be on the decline, resurfaced once again in the 2017 assembly elections trouncing the SP-Congress alliance and the BSP to record one of the largest wins in the state.

The SP, BSP and the RLD have entered into an alliance (combined vote share 42.7 percent in 2014) in the 2019 elections banking on its core support base of Yadavs, Jatavs and Jats, which combined with tactical Muslim votes could make it a winning combination in UP. The BJP’s core support base that crystallized in the last two elections comprises of upper castes, non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits. However, the success of this regional alliance depends upon three factors: one, how successfully Mayawati can remobilize Non-Jatav Dalits in favour of BSP, who deserted her and supported the saffron party in the previous two elections. Two, the extent to which Akhilesh Yadav can consolidate the Yadav support base of SP that was fragmented by family feud on leadership issue in 2017 and three the degree to which transfer of committed votes of the three parties to each other is successfully done during the elections. The elections in UP is psychologically favourable of the three regional parties with a fair chance of winning a sizeable number of Lok Sabha seats, provided the citizens are not again charmed by Modi’s magical electoral spell. The BJP election narrative would also focus on nationalism and the Pakistan bogey, among other things, and this has an immense potential of generating yet another saffron wave upsetting the applecart of regional parties in alliance.

The 2014 Lok Sabha Elections in Bihar witnessed a triangular electoral competition between the NDA, UPA and the JD (U) under the stewardship of Nitish Kumar. The BJP in alliance with LJP led by Ram Vilas Paswan and RSLP led by Upendra Kushwaha scored an emphatic victory, winning 31 out of the 40 parliamentary seats. The UPA (RJD-Congress-NCP) could win only in 7 seats with a combined vote share of 32 percent, which was seven percentage points less than the NDA. The JD (U) won 2 seats with 16 percent votes. The assembly elections in 2015 witnessed a Grand alliance between the JD (U), RJD and the Congress. The alliance of two dominant regional parties with the support of the Congress, inflicted a humiliating defeat to the NDA led by the BJP. The electoral outcome provided a strong political message that a high index of opposition unity can stop the victory march of the saffron juggernaut in state elections.

The breakdown of the JD (U)-RJD partnership in Bihar provided the BJP to strike a political alliance with Nitish Kumar’s party. The BJP-JD (U)-LJP alliance seat sharing provides the saffron party and JD (U) to contest in 17 seats each, while the LJP will field its candidates in the remaining 6 seats. The combined vote share of the three parties in the last Lok Sabha elections was around 50 percent, which even after some shedding would be enough to sweep the elections. The RJD has entered into an alliance with the Congress, RSLP and HAM led by Jiten Manjhi. The regional parties tally will certainly increase in Bihar, as the BJP is contesting 5 seats less than 2014, and the JD (U) will win a higher number of seats as compared with the previous elections.

Southern States

Andhra Pradesh went into simultaneous elections in 2014 for electing Lok Sabha and assembly members. The elections were held in the backdrop of impending bifurcation of the state to carve out Telangana and an acrimonious split in the Congress leading to the formation of YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) led by YS Jagan Mohan Reddy. The simultaneous polls witnessed a triangular electoral competition between Telugu Desam Party (TDP)-BJP alliance with support from actor Pawan Kalyan, the truncated Congress party and the YSRCP.

The TDP won 15 Lok Sabha seats with a vote share of 29 percent and a majority in the assembly elections (103 out of 175 seats), while the BJP as an alliance partner won two parliamentary seats with a paltry vote share of four percent. The YSRCP won eight parliamentary seats with a vote share of around 29 percent while the Congress drew a blank with four percent votes. The Congress lost its traditional support base of Reddy community which switched allegiance to YSRCP. The Kapus (numerically dominant in Godavari districts), rallied behind Pawan Kalyan and voted for the TDP.

The 2019 elections is again slated for a triangular contest with an altered electoral formation between the TDP, YSRCP and actor Pawan Kalyan's Jana Sena Party (JSP). The JSP was approved by the Election Commission on 11 December 2014 and the party announced that it would contest all 175 assembly seats in Andhra Pradesh on 2 May 2018. The BJP and the Congress are in a diminished position and would be residual challengers in the state. The TDP is on a political back foot after walking out of the saffron alliance and the decision of JSP not to ally with the TDP will further erode the support base of the Kapus community, which comprises of 10 percent of the population. The TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu will play the victim card and blame the BJP for not granting ‘special category status’ to Andhra Pradesh, but citizens of the state may not buy this narrative, as the Centre has provided more and enough funds. The TDP is facing anti-incumbency, as it has not been able to complete the work of constructing a new capital, Amravati world-class city, the Polavaram irrigation project, and the steel factory at Kadapa. The failure of the TDP-Congress alliance to make political inroads in Telangana in the assembly elections, forced Chandrababu Naidu to launch new schemes, which included scheme for the economic empowerment of women from self-help groups in the tune of Rs 10,000 per year, dole of Rs 2000 to unemployed graduates and increasing the pension to citizens from Rs 1000 to 2000.

The populist policies initiated by the TDP is too little and too late for reaping electoral benefits, and the YSRCP is all set to make a resurgence in AP by winning a sizeable number of Assembly and Lok Sabha seats and forming the next state government. YS Jagan Mohan Reddy battled the Congress onslaught between 2009 and 2014 and lost the opportunity in 2014 elections to make a mark due to TDP-BJP alliance with tacit support of the Pawan Kalyan, has tirelessly worked to carry forward the legacy of his father the late leader Dr YS Rajasekhara Reddy. The party’s strategy of maintaining its equidistance from both Congress and BJP is a smart political move, as it could become a kingmaker, if the NDA falters in winning the minimum numbers of seats required to form the next government in Delhi.

The Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) was formed by K Chandrashekhara Rao (KCR) in 2001 with the charter for creating a separate state of Telangana, which became a reality in 2014. The people rewarded KCR with TRS winning 11 (14 after three MPs defected from TDP, YSRCP and the Congress) out of the 17 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 elections and he became the first elected chief minister of the state. The decision of KCR to go for snap polls last year was a masterstroke as TRS swept the election winning 88 out of the 119 assembly seats with a whopping 47 percent vote share. The Congress alliance with TDP was a tactical mistake, as Chandrababu Naidu had opposed the demand for Telangana state, thereby evoking regional sentiments benefiting the TRS. The Congress managed to survive the ‘pink wave’ and win 19 seats with 28 percent votes.

The TRS is contesting in 15 Lok sabha seats and left the Hyderabad seat for Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul-Muslimeen (AIMIM). There is no formal alliance between the TRS and AIMIM, but the tacit understanding between the two parties will result in Muslim (13 percent of state population) consolidation of votes in favour of TRS. The TRS is showcasing the construction of the Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation project on Godavari river and the Rythu Bandhu--an agriculture investment support scheme, which provides farmers Rs. 4,000 per acre per season for purchase of seeds, fertilisers and pesticides during the rabi and kharif crop seasons--as its main achievements. The TRS is still in the honeymoon period of its recent landslide victory in the assembly elections and is most likely to completely sweep the forthcoming General Elections, in Telangana.

Tamil Nadu in the last five years has witnessed several political twist and turns as regional parties have changed their electoral partnership thrice. The ideological core of state parties is Dravidian pride and Tamil culture, which makes it easy to switch and side with an alliance with better winning prospects. The Lok Sabha elections in 2014 witnessed a multi party competition between the AIADMK, DMK in alliance with IUML and VCK, BJP in alliance with DMDK, PMK, IJK, PNK, the Congress and the left parties. The AIADMK riding high on the popularity of Jayalalitha (Amma) made a clean sweep by winning 37 out of the 39 seats with an impressive vote share of 44 percent votes. The other two seats were won by the BJP and the PMK while the DMK and the Congress, which fell apart in 2013, failed to open their accounts. The assembly elections in 2016 witnessed a realignment of political parties and a four-cornered contest between DMK alliance with Congress and IUML, AIADMK alliance (5 small parties), People Welfare Front comprising of MDMK, DMDK, CPM, CPI, VCK and TMC and BJP-IJK alliance. The AIADMK alliance won 135 out 234 assembly seats, while the DMK led alliance won 97 seats with DMK improving its vote share by eight percentage points since 2014 elections. The other two alliances could not manage to win even a single assembly seat.

The passing away of Amma and Karunanidhi, iconic doyens of Tamil politics in 2017-18, has not only created political void but also a reconfiguration of regional party politics in the state. The Lok Sabha election in the state is a direct fight between the DMK in alliance with the Congress, CPI, CPI (M), MDMK, IJK, KMDK, VCK and IUML and the AIADMK, which has joined hands with the BJP, DMDK, PMK, TMC, PT and PNK. The leadership transition in DMK to M K Stalin has been with minor hiccups, while the absence of a succession plan in AIADMK has deeply divided the party leadership and the rightful inheritor of Amma’s legacy is still undecided, creating confusion among the Tamilian electorate. Here, the DMK alliance has the advantage and is most likely to corner a major chunk of the seats in the parliamentary elections, which promises to be both fierce and high on theatrical content--the hall mark of Tamil Nadu politics.

Eastern Indian States

The Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) swept the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections in West Bengal by winning 34 out of the 42 seats with around 40 percent votes, while the Congress won 4 seats with 10 percent vote share. The Left Front comprising of CPI (M), CPI, AIFB and RSP garnered 30 per cent votes but only managed to win 2 seats. The electoral performance of the BJP was the biggest surprise, as it won 2 seats with 17 percent votes and extended its footprints in a state which is popularly perceived as averse to ring-wing ideology and communal politics.

The assembly election in 2016 was a triangular competition with TMC pitted against the Congress-Left Front alliance and the BJP-Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) alliance. TMC bettered its previous electoral record by winning a massive majority, 211 out of the 294 assembly seats with a vote share of 45 per cent, a 5 per cent increase in votes as compared with the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. The Congress-Left Front alliance won a combined 76 seats with 38 percent votes, while the BJP and GJM won three seats each, with the saffron vote share dipping by five percentage points since last General elections. The BJP regained some lost space in the Panchayat elections and has been able to manoeuvre its way into the Bengal bastion by ‘Slice and Dice’ game, which is essentially manpower poaching of TMC cadres and inducting two political heavy weight from Mamta’s party to counter her overpowering dominance in the state. The TMC is worried about the saffron inroads in its terrain and the refusal of the government to allow BJP Yatras (walkathons) in the state, on the grounds of fomenting communal tensions, is a signal of its nervousness.

The TMC continues to be the first choice of Bengali voters and is firmly perched in the state, and its policy to allocate 40 percent tickets to women candidates aiming at gender mobilization is likely to offset the votes it may lose on account of anti-incumbency. The BJP has set an ambitious plan of winning 21 seats in Bengal and will use the Sarada chit-fund scam to taint the image of TMC. It also seeks to nullify the TMC’s strategy of Muslim (27 percent population) consolidation of votes by raking up the Bangladeshi immigrants issue in the state. The BJP is set to increase its tally of seats from previous General elections, but Mamta Banerjee will continue to hold her sway in Bengal politics and win the maximum number of parliamentary seats.

In 2014 Lok Sabha Elections in Odisha, the BJD led by Naveen Patnaik was one of the four states, which could completely insulate itself from the ‘Modi wave’ that swept across the Hindi heartland states in the country. BJD registered an emphatic victory by winning 20 out of the 21 parliamentary seats with a vote aggregate of 45 percent. The BJP won a consolation prize of one seat and garnered 22 percent votes, while the Congress with a vote share of 26 percent could not win even a single seat. However, the BJP continued to gain political traction in the state and in the third tier local polls in 2017 was able to win 297 seats, a gain of 261 seats since 2012 polls, mainly wrested from the Congress that is on a decline curve. The BJD managed to hold on to its tally of 2012 Panchayat and Municipal polls, but the writing is on the wall that it would cede a sizable number of the seats to the saffron party in 2019 Lok Sabha elections in the state. The BJD is facing anti-incumbency sentiments in the state on account of corruption charges against its party leadership and cadres, and it would be an uphill task to turn the political tide back in its favour.

To conclude, the prominent regional parties in UP, Bengal and Odisha are facing the heat from saffron party, and the BJP seems poised to end the dominance of BJD in Odisha politics. The provincial parties in the AP, Telangana and Tamil Nadu would continue to hold a firm grip on state politics and keep BJP at bay. However, in elections, ‘It is Not over till it is Over!’

About the authors

Praveen Rai, Dwaipayan Sanyal
Praveen Rai, Dwaipayan Sanyal

Praveen Rai is a Political Analyst at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.

Dwaipayan Sanyal is a freelance Political Economist based in Noida, Uttar Pradesh.

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