National political parties in a federal nation

India’s national political parties have largely had a tough time in recent years. Both the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have seen their popularity diminish significantly and should realistically entertain little hope of coming back to power on their own terms in 2014. The Communist Party of India’s (Marxist) political imprint has traditionally been limited and they look no closer to a turnaround than they did in 2009. Corresponding to this decline of the national parties, regional parties have seemingly strengthened their holds on their respective bastions. With their respective bases covered, regional parties have looked to (and often succeeded in) dictating national policies—not always for the good, but neither can it be said that such influence is undue in our diverse federal polity.
Take a look at the Lok Sabha data from the 1996 election onwards. The seat share of the Congress and BJP has ranged from 52% (2004) to 59% (1998 and 2009), while the seat share of single-state parties varied from 26% (1996) to 33% (2004). As regional parties gain ground steadily, their political strategies of dealing with the central government have evolved. Regional parties that dominate their respective bases attempt to exert influence over governance in the centre either on the strength of their own numbers or by looking for like-minded allies. Their politics tend to be rather predictable, as we have seen on numerous occasions in Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh or even Orissa. Some of these tactics are justified as the central government continues to push ahead with straitjacketed flagship schemes and policies. On the other hand, they have also contributed to an uncertain policy environment that negatively affects the economy.
In the resulting jostle for power, who is likely to emerge the winner in 2014? Pratap Bhanu Mehta, writing in The Indian Express, seems to think we should not fear the emergence of a Third Front comprised of a loose coalition of regional parties. Indeed, given the policy incoherence on display at the Centre by the two national parties, a Third Front may in fact do no worse. Be that as it may, is it anyone’s case that the national parties should not make a comeback in this increasingly federal polity of ours? It is worth looking at research on what makes national parties tick in the states and examine the functioning of state units of national parties.
A recent article in the Economic and Political Weekly by Sylvie Guichard looked at this question, using the BJP in Gujarat as its case study. The conclusions of the paper seem to read as follows: if you have a self-styled charismatic personality leading a regional unit of a national political party, and if the style of governance followed is highly individual-centric, it is likely that this regional unit will evolve into what looks like an autonomous unit. The author argues that the state unit of the BJP in Gujarat has in effect, gone on to become an “autonomous regional party” and attributes his success largely to this factor. The increasingly autonomous nature of the state unit possibly also satisfies the expectations of the regional electorate.
In our electoral system, the state units and the national units have to share a symbiotic relationship if they harbour hopes of coming to power in Delhi. A regional leader cannot aspire to make it big on the national stage without the support of a political party architecture that extends beyond his/her regional roots. At the same time, national leaders would typically need multiple strong state units to secure the numbers it requires to come to power. These compulsions throw up interesting coordination issues and relationships within different political parties. To add to the mix, the electorate seems to care about the fact that there are differences between the politics in the states and in Delhi, and tries to make the choice that will represent their interests the best at the Centre.
How do these equations square off? In the coming years, we will see how national parties cope with the evolving political battleground. Is the key to success allowing state units to function as truly autonomous units? And even if the answer to this question is “yes”, will they muster up the will to tread that path?
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This column was first published by Livemint
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