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Growth of Regional Parties in India – Its Implications and Challenges

Growth of Regional Parties in India – Its Implications and Challenges

By Devansh Mehta

Edited by, Namrata Caleb, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist

In 1992, Czechoslovakia broke up into 2 countries – Czech Republic and Slovakia. Political thinkers widely agree that regional political parties played a major role in this, as prior to dissolution, the local citizens of both countries preferred to remain together as one country.

At another place in roughly the same time, Yugoslavia also broke up into different countries. The reasons, however, were entirely different. In a position very similar to India, they had many ethnic groups such as Albanians, Bosnian Muslims, Macedonians, Croats, Hungarians, Montenegrins, Serbs, and Slovenes, each having a reasonably distinct language, history, culture, and a history of ethnic conflict. There was a dearth of nationalist parties catering to all groups, with the result that in the 1991 polls, Franjo Tudjman’s Croatian Democratic Union and Milosevic’s Socialist Party of Serbia won only 41.5% and 47% of the votes respectively but gained 56% and 78% of the seats.
The country eventually broke up into 5 different countries in 1992. The death toll in the eventual breakup is estimated at roughly 200,000.

On a contrary note, Indian political thinkers have noted a correlation between rising political participation and patriotism amongst the Indians and the rise of regional parties since the 1990s.

This article will be helpful in understanding how regional parties work and what their growth has resulted in.

Regional parties work on 4 major planks – identity, statehood, autonomy and development. Autonomy consists of demanding greater powers to the states (like the National Conference in Jammu and Kashmir). Statehood consists of fighting for an independent state within the country (like the Telangana Rastra Samiti did). Identity consists of fighting for recognition of cultural rights of a group (like the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra or the DMK fighting for the identity of the Dalits). Development consists of regional parties believing that only they can bring development to the people of a particular region. Often regional parties combine 2 or more factors, like Vidarbha Rajya Party combine

development and statehood, while DMK and NC combine identity and autonomy.

Localized national parties, on the other hand, try creating a national identity and try to co-opt regional issues within the larger ambit of national interest. The Congress and the BJP are localized national parties, since they have different state units.

We will now try answering some fundamental questions using examples to determine the implications of regional parties. We will be trying to see whether they ensure better representation, promote integration in society and result in a better functioning government.

Q1). Do regional parties ensure greater representation (and consequently participation) of the different groups?

It is often believed that regional parties cannot arise out of a vacuum and come up simply to represent the regional identity and the views of the people already prevalent. Regional parties are thus the ‘medium through which a discourse on cultural specificity is translated into political assertiveness.’

However, this is a very simplistic picture of things. Sometimes regional parties create these ‘cultural specificities’ for electoral gains. They are thus ‘ethnic entrepreneurs’ in a sense – they create a demand and market where none existed earlier. Regional parties are thus not always a product of regional identities, but, for electoral gains, regional parties can create and strengthen these regional identities.

Czechoslovakia’s break up is a case in point, where polls showed the people preferred to remain one country but political parties began stirring up violence amongst the two communities.

Regional parties, in order to maximize electoral gains, blame the minority of the region for the problems of the majority, and then mobilize the majority against the minorities. Violence always yields dividends in poll times (since violence mobilizes entire groups), as can be seen by the BJP and Congress winning the elections immediately after Godhra and the Sikh riots. Another example of regional parties

promoting conflict for electoral reasons would be the Shiv Sena and MNS which often organize high decibel campaigns against North Indians, and blame them for problems of low wages and unemployment.

In this situation, it is the national parties who have a greater incentive to restore balance and protect minority rights (excepting certain situations like when the national party functions on exclusionary principles). National parties are more likely to protect minorities since they may be a majority elsewhere. The PDP (a regional party of Kashmir) attempted to pass the Daughters bill(2004), which sought to disallow non-Kashmiri husbands and their children from inheriting any property of their Kashmiri wife. The Congress, however walked out of the coalition in Kashmir and the bill was not passed.

Thus, localized national parties are better for maintaining peace and harmony since on the whole they must balance the interests of 2 regions to gain electorally. Regional parties, however, only need to support the majority of their own region to gain electoral support.


However, regional parties often result in good as they bring problems out into the open and the nation must deal with the problem instead of politically repressing it. The All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (later known as the Asom Gana Parishad or AGP), rose to prominence in 1966 due to the problem of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam. The Congress was hesitant to deal with this issue, since the immigrants (and the Muslims in the rest of the country) constituted a major share of their votebank. The political mobilization activity undertaken by the AGP greatly contributed to the Assam Accord signed by the Congress in 1985, which recognized all immigrants after 1971 as non-citizens.

This went a long way in stopping violence and it was the regional parties who forced a resolution of this issue. Thus, genuine problems of the people could only be resolved through regional parties, which not only brought the problem to light but ensured the national party had to overcome its own vested interest in not solving the problem. In the absence of the Assam Accord, it is a guarantee that ethnic conflict would have continued amongst the Assamese and the Bangladeshi immigrants.

Regional parties can thus solve issues in a peaceful and constitutional manner before things go out of hand.

Another example would be the DMK, which fought bitterly to prevent Hindi from becoming the sole working language in the country. It is due in large part to their efforts that Hindi and English are the working languages of India.

Even the Telangana Rashtra Samiti had promised to merge with whichever party grants its demand for a different state (and then went back on their promise). Thus, regional parties serve to give prominence to issues which would not otherwise be given any importance.

2] Do regional parties ensure a better functioning government?

Ex-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while speaking about difficulties of coalition politics, made this particularly enlightening remark – “Sometimes the resolution of problems acquires an excessively political hue, and narrow political considerations based on regional/sectional loyalties and ideologies, can distort the national vision and sense of wider collective purpose.”

This fits in very well with my argument about how regional parties have narrow interests and tend to place their regions interest above the nations – after all their votes come mainly from the region, and not the nation.

A very good example of how this works is India voting against Sri Lanka in the UN for the injustice meted to the Tamils in that region, solely due to pressure from the DMK. This goes against our basic principle of never voting on country specific provisions, and has greatly harmed India-Sri Lankan relations. Several times, more prosperous regions fight for greater fiscal autonomy, at the detriment of poorer regions. It is here that national parties need to step in to be neutral and balance the claims of 2 regions. As the PM said, the wider vision and sense of collective purpose is lacking in Regional Parties.


The flip side of this is that regional parties ensure that the people’s interests are not sacrificed at the altar of some greater good. An example to illustrate this point would be the Teesta river water sharing. The TMC refused to compromise and reduce Bengals share of the water for greater Indo-Bangladesh relations. There is also greater diversity within the Parliament, with one issue getting a myriad of views and thus educating the voter in the process.  In 2 party states, if 2 parties agree on something, there is little analysis and argumentation done further, and the voter gets less information as to implications of a proposal (although this isn’t really a worry since our 2 national parties always take the opposite stance).

Growth of Regional Parties also lead to ‘rainbow’ coalitions, so called because like the rainbow, they are ephemeral and last only a short time, with many different colours. The period of ’96 – ’99 had 3 general elections, which cost a lot of money.

Policy paralysis and delay in decision making and bills all result from coalitions. In response to Pakistani aggression in ’99, India took one week to launch Operation Vijay, which removed Pakistani troops from Indian territory. In times of emergency, coalition coordination can lead to unacceptable delays.

At the same time, during times of coalitions, regional parties may serve as a moderating force upon exclusionary national parties. Having regional parties like JD(U) and NC in the NDA in ‘99 are amongst the important reasons the party compromised on its all India cow slaughter ban and the autonomy status of J&K.

3] Do regional parties promote national integration of different parts of society?

Another criticism of Regional Parties is their exclusionary ideology. Some parties like Shiv Sena function on double exclusion, by invoking Maratha and Hindu pride. These thus create artificial differences in society, by

highlighting differences and ignoring the commonalities. Most national parties, on the other hand, have all inclusive ‘sarvajanik’ principles, inclusive of all people across the nation.

Exclusionary ideologies are not always negative. They are sometimes needed in order to protect minorities.

National parties, while trying to incorporate ‘all’, will invariably leave behind ‘some’. The practical reality is that while trying to target all groups, invariably those with greater power (financial and numerical) will always call the shots. Thus, in trying to represent ‘all’, the ‘some’ left behind are more often than not the minorities, due to their absence in the party cadre and non-prominence.

Regional parties, on the other hand, have a fixed, definite ideology regarding their supporters and so must give importance to them. For example, in 1957, the local congress unit in TN, while ostensibly representing all groups, was still primarily controlled by Tam-Brahms (Tamilian Brahmins). DMK has a double exclusionary ideology of  Dravidians and non-Brahmins, so DMK not only gave the non-Brahmin Dravidians a means to adequate representation, but also a means to controlling power by harnessing their collective power. The immediate effect of this was the right of lower castes to enter temples. Thus, social groups earlier left unrepresented are now represented by regional parties. Similarly, the BSP acted in this capacity for the Dalits in UP.

This could explain the correlation of greater social awareness, social movements and democratic participation in the 90s and growth of regional parties. Regional parties fill a vacuum for protecting minorities by harnessing their collective power and thus serve as a vehicle for an aspirational coup.

An interesting argument put forth by Steven Wilkinson is that as electoral competition increases (which it did, in India, once regional parties entered the fray), this increases the value of minorities whose vote may make the difference (especially in the FPPS system of India, where a 25% vote can win you the seat). Thus, due to regional parties increasing competition in elections, all parties will look after minority interests better to gain their crucial vote.

For those who still fear that regional parties weaken the national bond, by promoting sectarian interests over the national good, there are three indicators political scientists have observed prior to a break up of the country, none of which regional parties in India show signs of.

  1. Minimal economic dependence on metropolis/center
  2. Few ties of communication and alliance towards the national centre
  3. An internal set of culture within that region/ development of a counter culture within that region.

Using these tools of analysis, we will examine India’s situation with special reference to the hotspots of India like Kashmir and Naxal affected territories.

A. Minimal economic dependence on center.

Economics and convenience is a major factor in holding India together. Although some ministers like Chidambaram have said that the North is holding India back, it is important to remember that armies consist almost exclusively of northerners. A break up would mean each state having its own army, which not only hampers economics but is also counter-productive.

Strong economic ties also exist between states. Large numbers of people, from Kashmir to the North-East to the South, have the aspiration of coming to Delhi and Mumbai for jobs and studying. The government has been promoting this by having scholarships meant only for Kashmiris, and reserving seats for them in universities as well (for example, every course in Mumbai university has one seat reserved exclusively for Kashmiris). In this circumstance, Kashmiris would not prefer a break up of the country since it destroys their hope of making it to the metropolis.

In the naxal affected areas though, the centre is viewed as an economic liability since the tribals believe the centre want their land for the minerals underneath it.

B.Few ties of communication and alliance to centre.

  1. There are strong ties of communication and transport existing in the country as a whole. The train system of India is second in connectivity only to Russia, and the postal system is also very effective. Several cities like Bangalore have benefited from the influx of migrants and opportunities derived by being part of one stable country.
  2. As of now, the Center is viewed more as an enemy in Kashmir and naxal hit areas due to government atrocities in the past (notwithstanding the relief effort undertaken in Kashmir by the army). There is a relatively low level of alliance with the centre.

C.An internal set of culture within that region/ development of a counter culture within that region.

  1. There is little evidence of a counter culture in opposition to the idea of India. Unlike countries like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, there is a strong sense of Indianness, or what is called a federal unifier.All the established regional parties (with no exceptions) believe in the idea of India and do not make inflammatory statements against the country. Even the Shiv Sena was stung when Sachin made the remark “I am an Indian first and then a Maharashtrian” in response to criticism by the Shiv Sena and MNS for his ‘Mumbai for all’ remark. Even regional parties like Shiv Sena are very patriotic to India, which is something absent in countries which have broken up.

       2.There is no doubt that states differ remarkably in culture. However, religion serves as a binding force here, as even Hindu’s              from the South travel to the Ganga. Muslims and Hindus from the north and the south go to Ajmer sharif in Rajasthan. This           increases the communication between the people from different parts of India and helps overcome prejudice.

       3.There is an established counter-culture present in Kashmir and the Naxal areas, which has only become stronger after                     Modi’s ascension. Slogans are seen regularly on the walls of the major cities of Kashmir and naxals routinely perform plays            and sing songs against Delhi.

Thus, we have attempted to answer the question as to whether regional parties serve as a force of good or evil in democracies. I do hope that I have helped you to draw a clearer picture by highlighting the major arguments on either side, and offering as balanced a view on both sides.

I think Pradeep Kumar has the last word on this topic, when he says “Regional parties are a natural consequence of a democratic system based on adult franchise in multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-linguistic societies like India, and hampering their growth is against the entire spirit of democracy.

Devansh Mehta is in 3rd year Philosophy at St. Stephen’s College. He pursues any activity as long as it promises to be an interesting one. He also believes that we cannot write about something we don’t have experience of, and so stays away from theoretical discourse and instead writes about the experiences and problems of the people he comes across. Don’t hesitate to tell me something interesting by dropping a mail at [email protected].

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