Where are the so-called powerful regional parties of India and their strong local satraps who were, until about a year ago, being feared for their ability to destabilise the polity and threaten national security?
Today, leaders like Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik, Nitish Kumar, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad and Mayawati appear much weaker than just a decade ago. They are routinely dismissed in the dominant political narrative set by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah as destabilisers of a strong, unified India. And yet, India is no stronger or more stable today than before. Not when democratic institutions are weakening across the board at an alarming pace.
The discussion on and assessment of state-level opposition leaders are now in reverse gear. Indian media and its mainstream political columnists ask ‘where’ these leaders are. There is indeed a growing fear about an actual crisis of political leadership, ideology and relevance, given how Narendra Modi and Amit Shah established their hegemony. But it’s only been a little over five months. About four and a half years still remain in Modi’s second term. In that sense, the question – where have the regional parties and leaders gone – is of great significance. So, let us see how one after another, India’s political Titans have fallen or become redundant.
The apprehension before the 2019 Lok Sabha election was that there might not be a strong government with a majority but a coalition of fronts and alliances of regional parties. But while a few stalwarts had died, many of the known satraps had lost much of the significance they once enjoyed in the pre-2014 era. Ever since J. Jayalalithaa passed away on 5 December 2016, the AIADMK has become an orphan, playing second fiddle to the BJP in Tamil Nadu.
Following the death of M. Karunanidhi, the longest-serving chief minister of Tamil Nadu, on 7 August 2018, the DMK has retained its integrity but does not have the same shine to it. TDP’s N. Chandrababu Naidu started becoming irrelevant with the rise of Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh.
TMC supremo and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee once held somewhat believable hopes of becoming the prime minister. It now seems she is fighting for her political survival. The Badal family and their Shiromani Akali Dal, who considered Punjab as their fiefdom, do not seem to enjoy much support even among the Sikh community.
Although the Shiv Sena is making noises, the tiger’s roar could never be the same in Maharashtra’s politics after Bal Thackeray’s death in 2012. Maratha strongman, NCP chief Sharad Pawar, has just managed to float in the Modi-Shah tsunami, but he is nowhere close to acquiring power.
Mayawati of the BSP has already become a hollow political force in Uttar Pradesh. And former chief ministers Mulayam Singh Yadav and son Akhilesh Yadav failed to do much for Samajwadi Party since losing power in 2017. Naveen Patnaik of the BJD in Odisha could never emerge as a national political force, just like Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who is currently trying to balance on a political beam.
Most of these satraps had prime ministerial hopes. Media experts and TV panellists too tossed multiple possibilities of Mamata, Mayawati or even Pawar becoming a PM candidate. But nobody saw the coming extinction of these parties and leaders.
BJP without Modi-Shah
So, has the Indian polity become stable in their absence? Has the threat to national security diminished by their political oblivion?
Indeed, has the BJP given Indian politics new leaders from within its own ranks? Much of the politics today, and possibly since 2013, has been about Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. No other minister or leader from the BJP can be seen at par with these two leaders.
In terms of the party’s reach, the BJP has still not been able to establish its presence in the south, except in Karnataka.
Their claims of having successfully “captured” the northeast are vain, particularly in the wake of a messy National Register of Citizens in Assam. Manipur and Nagaland do not respect the political authority of the Centre. The Jammu and Kashmir experiment of allying with the PDP failed miserably while the scrapping of its special status through Article 370 seems to be floundering.
Rumblings in the Hindu camp
RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat is trying extremely hard to be relevant today. The RSS itself may be feeling a churn. There is fear among some RSS apparatchiks of being marginalised. Strident voices in the RSS support V.D. Savarkar and want him to be given a Bharat Ratna. But some old guards in the Sangh Parivar feel that the Hindu Mahasabha (formed a decade before the RSS was established in 1925) has usurped the Golwalkar ethos of the Sangh. The Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS have largely been hostile to each other.
There is also the realisation that despite the BJP’s majority in Parliament and the unchallenged leadership of Modi and Shah, it might not after all be possible to change the Constitution to make India a Hindu Rashtra. Howsoever glamorous Modi’s foreign trips and images of him hugging foreign leaders or addressing huge rallies abroad are, these are unlikely to solve the ideological issues within the Hindutva camp.
Uncertain present, unpredictable future
What we are witnessing today is an unprecedented situation. There is a stable, majority government without any challenge from within or outside. And yet, there are widespread concerns, not only among the intellectuals but even in the business community, who have stood with the BJP despite everything. Additionally, there is a rapid decline in the credibility of India’s leading institutions like the judiciary, the intelligence agencies, the police forces, the bureaucracy, the Election Commission and, above all, the media. The civil society movements, too, seem to have disappeared completely.
It is this ideological vacuum that has led to the institutional collapse. Even the disintegration of the opposition and redundancy of the regional parties is a result of this politico-ideological abyss. Not only the future, even the present looks uncertain and unpredictable.
The author is a former editor and Congress member of Rajya Sabha. Views are personal.