Each election between now and 2024 will challenge the old federal design of authority, power, responsibility and accountability
Elections, at every level, are going to be a series of confrontations over political cultures right up to the mother of all battles in 2024. That much is clear from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s harangue at the BJP’s national executive meet convened after a two-year gap in hybrid mode, with some attending in person and others virtually.
After propounding the idea of cooperative federalism way back, when Mr Modi was India’s bright new hope, the relationship between the Centre and states, in the BJP’s assessment, has sunk to labelling the Opposition of “family” parties as “enemies”, who peddle “hate.” This hostility is reciprocated by the Opposition and its new and perhaps unabashedly self-nominated messiah, Mamata Banerjee.
Her description, and it’s probably a shared belief among parties opposed to the BJP about the current status of the relationship, that it’s not a federalism of “partnership”, meaning between equals, but it’s a hierarchy of “subordination,” followed up by her attack that the BJP government at the Centre dishes out “step-motherly” treatment, is sufficient warning that the run-up the 2024 war will be a series of battles fought in states due to hold elections between now and then. Unless the Opposition’s fightback state by state, as seems the strategy now, collapses either under the weight of its own contradictions or buckles to the pressure of politically targeted raids and investigations by Central agencies.
Each election between now and 2024 will challenge the old federal design of authority, power, responsibility and accountability. Though India doesn’t have a two-party system, the politics of the Union, that is the politics of exercising power at the Centre, has always been based on the idea of a big, strong “national” party with a sufficient majority in the Lok Sabha. Even when the party in power at the Centre was fragile and needed allies to survive, the model remained of a big party with weak satellites.
Aiming to win a third term, the BJP is still attached to the old strategy of defending itself against a challenger with “national party” status. Its principal political target has been and is the Congress, as it simplifies the fight into a past versus future contest or an elite versus proletarian leader race. The model of two national parties competing helps the BJP dress up its Hindutva, hard-right, nationalist agenda.
By recognising the Opposition as “family-led” parties that peddle hate and enmity, Mr Modi has acknowledged there’s a new kind of challenge to the BJP. In claiming the lead role in an Opposition assault on the BJP, state by state, starting with Goa that goes to be polls in February 2022, and then Tripura in 2023, Mamata Banerjee has taken the bull by the horns. Accusing the Congress of being indecisive, inevitable given its failure to identify a leader, she justified her pre-emptive bid as a remedy to her question: “Why should the country suffer?”
The Opposition may not have met in a conclave to endorse Ms Banerjee as the face to fight Mr Modi in 2024. But the Opposition has also not shot down her launch of the Trinamul Congress in Goa, Tripura and Uttar Pradesh. Misgivings that “Modiji is going to be more powerful because of the Congress” are evident in the lack of enthusiasm among Opposition parties or non-national parties invited to the August meeting called by Sonia Gandhi. Non-national parties in opposition to the BJP and to the Congress have reasons to be wary of the two big names.
The Congress, as the reigning party across India, the original model of “double-engine sarkar”, created the precedents that underlie the centralisation of power and the practice of shifting responsibility and accountability to the states. The BJP has merely deepened the divide between the Centre and states by undermining the institutions of dialogue and accommodation like the Planning Commission once was, or the Inter-State Council recommended by the Sarkaria Commission as a concession to the idea of federalism and shared responsibility.
There is, however, a clear difference between the older and increasingly obsolete idea of a bunch of chaotic regional parties, family led as most of them are, trying to forge an alternative to challenge the national party in power at the Centre and the Opposition parties in power in several states for decades. Tamil Nadu, Odisha, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, and off and on Bihar and Karnataka (this isn’t a full list) have been run for decades by parties that are “non-national” in the sense that they are based in specific geographies. In these states, the ruling parties have fought off the Congress or the BJP as challengers.
In each of these states, there is a commonly shared agenda, of finding new routes to interface and connect with voters that both short-circuits and bypasses the ever more centralising politics of governance of the two national parties, Congress and BJP. Since Rajiv Gandhi launched the panchayati raj system that linked the party in power at the Centre directly to the gram panchayats in the states by establishing a route for funding Central programmes, state governments and regional/non-national parties had to find new ways to ensure that they too have programmes recognised by the voters in the most distant polling booths as customised schemes that meet their most immediate needs and fulfil their expectations.
In almost every state election between now and 2024, the territorially “non-national” or regional parties will be locked in survival wars over defending the right to represent the people living in separate states within a multi-party system. What it boils down to is a random example that illustrates the nature of the confrontation -- the Centre’s rejection of the Aam Admi Party’s request to clear its scheme of doorstep delivery of food rations on the grounds that the Food Security Act does not sanction such measures.
To concede defeat to the BJP/Centre over improving access and establishing entitlement to something as basic as food safety by states will mean the beginning of the end of the idea that regional parties are better at identifying and fulfilling voters’ needs. Such schemes are not “populist”, buying voter programmes as old-style politicians invariably and derisively label them. These are intelligent investments in building human capital that have high rates of return in the long term, as economists like Gary Becker demonstrated, and fill the gap between the Centre’s grand programmes and a more granular response to perceived gaps in access and delivery. In the run-up to 2024, state elections will be fought by regional parties in defence of a multi-party, multi-location system of democratic politics.