All This Negative Fury

The federal moment as announced by eleven regional outfits that are apparently opposed to both Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is merely a casual, if not negative, opposition. In other words, opposition to bi-polar parliamentary orientation, as it is evolving in India today, by itself doesn’t confront the harsh reality of multi-party culture. The Left apart, the motley crowd includes well-known opportunist political groups like Janata Dal (S), Janata Dal (U), AIADMK and Samajwadi Party. Their avowed intent to work against the Congress-led UPA government while without giving any extra political space to BJP-led NDA, in parliament as a bloc doesn’t really cut much ice because the end of the UPA government’s term is very much round the corner. For all practical purposes they are actually searching for a common electoral agenda which has been elusive for long despite periodic noises of third front or what they would like to call Federal Front. They have very little in common other than opportunism, albeit these days they say they have a common stand on federalism. But over the years they have perfected the art of turning foes into friends, even by retreating disorderly from their ‘principled’ position on federalism, if big bosses accommodate them in their elite club to loot the exchequer. They know how to work with enemies, not friends.

For one thing the much talked about Indian federal structure is a myth. Indian constitutional arrangement is out and out unitary and, whatever little federalism provinces enjoyed five or six decades ago, has been systematically curtailed over the years through a series of amendments to the constitution. The very rise of so many regional political formations, sometimes working at cross-purposes with medieval mind-set, is due to absence of genuine federalism in the first place. Centralisation of powers at the Centre is a continuous process. And it seems irreversible. Once upon a time they used to describe states as the Centre’s colony without specifically targeting the Centre on political grounds, they talked mere in terms of economic bondage, not social agony that stems from it. They never raised the issue of Centre-State relations in earnest though the Sarkaria Commission report is gathering dust over the years. If they were too vague to articulate their vision on true federalism then, they are equally so even today.

The moot question is whether they could really float such a front before the 2014 parliamentary poll, while agreeing not to disagree on electoral seat adjustment against their common adversaries—Congress and BJP. If past record is any guide the possibility of such a working alliance is not that bright. After some time they will be happy to participate in the bi-polar game. They hope to play national role with regional aspirations only to contradict the very idea of federalism. They have no all-encompassing economic agenda of their own, they just dance to the tune set by Congress or BJP. Politics of federalism in real sense will ruin their fiefdoms which they can ill-afford to lose. In the final analysis what all they want is liberal central doles and both Congress and BJP are not averse to it. They are not basically opposed to neo-liberal economic package that has pauperised a vast majority of the population. Nobody expects politicians like Mulayam Singh Yadav thriving on reverse casteism and minority communalism will lead Indian masses in their millions against corruption and privatisation of national assets. Nor do people these days take their war cry, otherwise hollow, against majoritarian communalism of BJP seriously. BJP knows their limitations. And Congress too is familiar with the policy of carrot and stick to tame their anger. With their limited political skill and manipulative tactics, they could at best increase their partisan bargaining power which in effect will not disturb the status quo.

Not all regional outfits are enthusiastic about this third force which the saffron brigade jokingly dubs as third grade. In plain language there is always enough room for big brothers to politically manoeuvre them. There are always some provincial outfits in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal, Andhra and Tamil Nadu that would like to swim alongwith UPA or NDA.

Regionalism as a distinct political tendency seems to have lost its relevance in some areas. Both Congress and BJP know it well that they will have to talk something else other than federalism if they want to remain in business.

In recent years some regional parties came to power in some states but many lost power elsewhere despite being more regional in scope and outlook. As they lack distinct political and ideological conviction voters are increasingly losing faith in their regionalism that is nothing but parochialism and chauvinism—plain and simple. Assam regionalists are no longer in power as they have nothing to offer that could advance their regional identity any further. Jharkhandis of all shades periodically depend either on Congress, or on BJP to keep their regional bias alive. Regionalists like the so-called nationalists are really afraid of the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) factor. After their stunning success in Delhi assembly polls they have become a talking point across the country not for regionalism. People see in them a force ready to fight corruption at all levels and it counts in vote market. All things considered AAP is still only a regional platform with national appeal and it is a major irritant for both Congress and BJP and for the hawkers of third alternative as well. They may upset all pre-poll calculations and post-poll permutations and combinations. In a sense they are venting philosophic expression to the self-activity of common people. AAP’s approach is in favour of total rupture of prevailing institutions, their non-traditional practice produces new progressive impulses throughout the country, much to the dismay of traditional power-brokers. One may call it a negative fury that is unlikely to last long but then it is a negative fury against the old. The left is really fighting for life. Whether regionalists and casteist forces can help them to salvage their declining left image is open to question. Even if Third Front or Federal Front gets materialised before polls, there is no guarantee that they would march together after poll. (11-02-2014)

Vol. 46, No. 33, Feb 23 - Mar 1, 2014