Over the last couple of days, I have been reading about regional identities that exist within India. It is good to be proud of ones regional and linguistic identity; India derives its unique strength largely through such diverse identities. However, the trend to use such identities for petty political gains is when the problem originates. This trend has only intensified over the last few years as the BJP has grown its foothold in states that have been traditionally dominated by regional political parties. The problem with this trend is that it erroneously assumes that regional identity has to be in conflict with a national identity and it is this conflict that lets the regional parties garner popular support which can be used to win elections.
There was an argument proposed earlier that such regional polarization happens in states that are underdeveloped and starved of resources however, this argument is not supported by any evidence. In fact, a maximum public support of such strong regional identity-based politics comes from the Southern States of India. This implies that education and economic status of the electorate is not relevant when it comes to such politics.
Take the example of Kerala floods, the centre gave as much immediate relief as possible to the state of Kerala yet the state government along with the left ecosystem politicized the entire issue and made it about North versus the South. At a time of crisis of the magnitude of the current floods in Kerala, the focus of the opposition for on politicization of the entire issue rather than channelizing their energies towards the rescue operations.
While the leaders from the south were fuming such hateful thoughts into the minds of people, we had Chief Ministers of Northern States pledge money for rehabilitation of the state of Kerala. People who reside in the northern, western and eastern states of India also came together to donate as much money as possible in their individual capacity for relief and rescue efforts. A calamity of this magnitude should unite Indians together and not divide them. While Indians were standing with their fellow Indian citizens from the state of Kerala, the politicians from the state were fuming hatred against the North Indian belt. Add to this propaganda pinch of fake news regarding North’s apathy towards the South and voila, you’ve polarized the state against their fellow Indians. This may result quick election results on certain occasions but the question is, at what cost do the regional political parties want to win elections? Their narrative has gone out of control as this hatred has translated into an idea of United States of Southern India- an economic union of the southern and developed states of India.
The question is, in India do we need separate state economic unions? Does such a union not undermine the constitution of our country? Does such a union not have potential repercussions as it may fume separatists and fundamentalist movements in the future?
Let me give you another example, when Hon’ble Prime Minister, Sh. Narendra Modi went to Chennai, a political party ran a campaign “Go Back Modi” to fume a sentiment against the BJP. What they didn’t realize is that Sh. Narendra Modi is the Prime Minister of India and they were asking a duly elected Prime Minister to go back from his own country! I don’t need to point out the fact that the campaign was immature, in bad faith and deserves to be condemned in the strongest of words.
The question that now remains is, will the regional identity-based politics succeed? The chances of it succeeding are highly unlikely because there’s also a national identity that exists and it is not the case that national identity would be at odds with regional identity- they both complement each other and not compete amongst each other.
The BJP’s strategy is on politics of aspirations which has a much wider appeal than regionalism. The growing aspirations of the people is causing the space for the BJP to grow at the expense of strong regional parties. While the regional parties have intensified their regional identity campaign, people are beginning to identify with a national aspirational identity which is subsuming all other identities.
The success of the BJP in Bengal and Karnataka in improving its vote share and number of seats illustrates that there is a substantial section of the population which is fed up of such “regionalism”. It is this section along with the aspirational voter that has started to vote for the BJP as an alternative. For the parliament elections, the BJP may manage to get a substantial section of the vote share (and seats) from the Southern States of India and once the BJP can cultivate local strong leaders in the Southern States, the space for regional parties in state assemblies would shrink if they keep on holding to regional identities as the core of their ideology.
India is a diverse country and we definitely do need regional political parties to represent the interests of people but they must be responsible political parties and they must realize that national identity and regional identity go hand in hand. If they do behave responsibly, they can grow across states and expand but if they keep on fuming regional conflicts then they’d definitely lose their political space to fundamentalists and extremists. It is an existential crisis for the regional political parties in India and so far, they’ve only found ways to make it worse for them- and for the nation.
Karan Bhasin is a political economist by academic training. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets at @karanbhasin95. Views personal.