States of play

The critique of regional parties stems mostly from the failure to appreciate politics at multiple levels

English philosopher Thomas Hobbes' forceful metaphor to characterise smaller associations, opposition and dissent to the Leviathan, "like worms in the entrails of a natural man", may today summarise the critique of single-state political parties in popular discourse. The dominant theme is that the so-called regional political parties not only represent and serve small and narrow pockets of self-interested political classes, but are also the primary obstacles to the consolidation of democracy in India. The rise and dominance of single-state parties represents a decline from a "golden age", and so, like Hobbes, the critics want these parties to be exorcised.

The underlying normative idea is that the logic of modernisation would flatten regional and parochial identities and allow for the emergence of nationwide cleavages. Polity-wide parties that extend across the country were the players to watch out for and the government at the Centre was the big prize to be won. A connected idea is that politics at the state level is secondary and important only insofar as it tell us something about national politics.

However, political processes in India rarely follow predetermined scripts. Parties that advanced particularistic identities and formed around distinctive regionally concentrated interests did not fade away. Instead, some even displaced polity-wide parties as the major actors in some states. At the same time, despite a strong-Centre based Constitution, states have become the primary arena of politics in the country.

Despite their long lineage, despite winning and governing at the state-level and playing a prominent role in federal coalitions, single-state parties like the DMK, RJD, TDP, AIADMK, JMM, National Conference, Akali Dal and Shiv Sena, among others are viewed not just with disdain but are also seen to be the cause of most ills. The assumption is that these parties are born short-sighted and when they dictate terms at the national level it does more harm than good.

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