After the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) won a massive victory in the Delhi state elections for the third time in February 2020, it immediately announced expansion plans for ‘a nationwide campaign to foray into other states’. Since then, AAP has contested in 554 assembly seats in six states as part of this national expansion endeavour (not including Punjab since it was not a new state for the AAP’s expansion). The party lost all but two seats and lost its deposit, a threshold for an ignominious defeat, in 99 per cent of these seats, securing an average vote share of 0.7 per cent.
‘We will expand to other states to take on the BJP and save India’, thundered the Trinamool Congress (TMC) after its third consecutive victory in the West Bengal state elections in May 2021. Since then, it has contested in 30 seats in other states as part of its much-hyped expansion plan. It lost all, lost deposits in 85 per cent of these seats and secured an average vote share of 7.7 per cent despite an alliance in Goa with a strong regional party.
The temptation to expand
After every big electoral victory, there emerges a strong temptation for regional parties to ‘go national’ and replicate this success in other states. This temptation, to a certain extent, is aided and abetted by ‘national’ media that believes Delhi news is national news. Interestingly, the southern regional parties such as the DMK, YSRCP and TRS don’t express such exuberant national ambitions in public when they win an election in their home state, which is typically far away from Delhi.
Evidently, as the results show, it is much harder for regional parties to expand to other states. Electoral success in one state does not transfer easily to another state, even a neighbouring one. The southern regional parties seem to intuitively understand this better than their northern counterparts. An interesting fact is that more ‘Indians’ voted for YSRCP in one state of Andhra Pradesh in the 2019 state election than those that voted for AAP across nine states including Delhi and Punjab combined.
India’s rich political diversity rightly reflects the underlying social diversity of the nation. Will diversity among India’s states perpetuate its political diversity with fragmented regional parties or will there be more multi-state parties that are able to transcend across states such as AAP in Punjab and Delhi?
Diversity and impact on politics
The facts of India’s spatial diversity are well known — the average Hindi-speaking Bihari is 19 years old, a primary school dropout and earns Rs 40,000 a year while the average Tamilian is a generation older at 30, a matriculate and earns four times more. Fifty-two per cent of Biharis live below the poverty threshold while 99 per cent of Keralites are above the poverty line. The economic and demographic gaps between India’s rich and poor states are wide and glaring. While variations across states and provinces is not unusual in most large countries, the levels of economic and demographic disparity across India’s states are the starkest in the world, wider than the US, China and even the European Union as an imaginary nation. What is worse is that the gap between India’s rich and poor states is only widening and not shrinking, unlike in most other federal nations. Add linguistic, ethnic and cultural diversity on top of the burgeoning economic and demographic differences of states and it’s not hard to fathom why India’s politics reflects a European Union more than a United States.
In the last three decades, Indian states have had chief ministers belonging to 25 different political parties. Twenty-one out of these 25 parties have no material political presence outside their home state, even after three decades. Their politics has largely been limited to voters within the confines of their state’s geographical boundaries. But within their states, they are formidable. It is not for lack of ambition that these regional parties have stayed stuck within their state. Many have attempted to expand and go ‘national’ but have failed.
India’s political diversity is merely a manifestation of its underlying social, cultural, linguistic, demographic and economic diversity. When no two Indian states have much in common and are almost like two different nations, it is no surprise that the axis of India’s politics is tilted towards localism and sub-nationalism, resulting in a mushrooming of regional political parties. Political science theory would predict exactly this fragmented maze in Indian politics to mirror its underlying diversity, not the simple two-party democracy that other less diverse democratic nations have evolved into. The two Indian national parties, BJP and the Congress, are the exceptions that prove this rule, given their long history and legacy vis-à-vis other regional parties. There are at least 26 political parties in India that are in contention to govern a state at any point. This is unparalleled in any other democratic nation. Indian federalism must first factor in such extreme political diversity, which is where policies like GST blundered.
Fragmentation to continue
Given the widening economic, demographic and social disparity among India’s states, it is logical to expect further fragmentation of India’s politics as voters in each state have varying preferences and priorities. But modern communication technologies such as digital media can be the potential centripetal force that unifies voters across states transcending cultural and economic barriers. In the pre-digital communications era, a Tamil voter in rural Dharmapuri may have never heard of a TMC or an AAP but does so now. She will perhaps also know about (mis)governance of these parties in their state and form an opinion. Such easy access to knowledge of regional parties and their performance in other states may be the harbinger of a potential change in voter awareness and preferences for political parties outside one’s home state. AAP’s success in expanding into Punjab from their home state of Delhi is as much an outcome of modern communication as the Punjabi’s yearning for change and freshness in their politics. It still took AAP eight years to win an election and form a government in Punjab which highlights how tall the walls of diversity of India’s states are.
The centrifugal forces of India’s widening inter-state differences can be contested by the centripetal forces of digital communication. The winner of this contest will determine if India will vote as a nation or as a Union of states. As voters get more disenchanted with their regional parties and are more aware and knowledgeable of parties in other states, can this pivot India’s political diversity into more ‘national’ parties and fewer regional parties?
Praveen Chakravarty is a political economist and Chairman of the Data Analytics department of the Congress party. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)