The cliche of the old Hindi movie weepies was that of the tartar mother-in-law making the life of the bahu miserable. Of late that stereotype has been turned on its head by a new Saas-bahu formula where it is mostly the scheming bahu who humiliates and dispossesses the saans (maybe the serial-makers have figured out that more saans-es are watching their stuff than bahus) and the husband’s family rather than the other way round.
In the political scene, there has been a similar reversal of fortune over the last few decades. Where once regional parties were treated with condescension and contempt by the national parties, now it is the small local players at whose door the national parties have to stand, plate in hand, for left-overs. Be it Naveen Patnaik giving a tamacha to the BJP or Laloo and Mamata entering into seat-sharing alliances humiliating for the Congress, the writing is clear on the wall—-the “national parties” are national only in name with the real power resting in the hands of small regional power-brokers.
With the Congress and the BJP both having their influences and power severely curtailed, a government made up of an agglomeration of regional power-brokers is a distinct though nightmarish possibility. With no unity of purpose among the different constituents other than to hold power, a Third front government (and history shows this to be the case) essentially becomes one in which since noone expects the alliance to last through a year, every stakeholder tries to smash and grab whatever one can in the limited time one has the kursi. Governing essentially comes to a halt as each day becomes a struggle to make it through the next no-confidence vote or cabinet reshuffle with its attendant back-room plays and legislator-trading.
This being the case, one is justified in feeling nostalgic for those days in which strong national parties (principally Congress) had an almost total mandate to rule. Free from pesky allies trying to arm-twist privileges, the onerous task of governing could be accomplished in less tumultuous settings. Long-term, globally-beneficent national policies could be put into place. There was an incentive to do so because a national party had the entire country to keep happy. As opposed to regional parties who could not care the less what “others” thought of them as long as they could wring out benefits for themselves and their own constituents.
However in reality, the national parties were pretty regional too. Power almost always lay in the hands of politicians from the Hindi heartland and in the case of the Congress with people having a certain surname (Narasimha Rao, arguably one of the best PMs if not the best we have ever had, had to struggle throughout his life to get to the top, something he would never have been able to do, despite his persistent ambitions, had not Rajiv Gandhi been assassinated) For the sake of “homogeneity” and “consensus” the ambitions of “regional” leaders were sidelined. Pawar had no choice but to take the highway. VP Singh’s ambition to forge the Janata Dal into a national party led to Chandrasekhar being shown the door, with consequences for the whole party and the country.
During election time, the national party would play the caste and religion cards, stoke local ambitions, create power-centers. But once election was done and dusted, the central figures would once again take over leaving the satraps dissatisfied (a state of political KLPD). However so strong was the power structure, that the national parties had nothing to fear from the disgruntled who would lick their paws at the best and split off to form regional outfits of marginal importance at the worst.
But now the shoe is on the other foot. In the 80s, for instance, the Congress government would consistently create funding problems for Bengal with respect to power projects at Bakreswar and Haldia simply to “punish” a CPM-ruled state. Now with the arrogance gone it can ill-afford to be so cavalier not just with Bengal but with any state. Every political leader now needs to be pampered and while the national party head is still a person of considerable influence, he/she can never wield the kind of supreme power that Indira Gandhi did. And while the rail minister can still make 75% of trains run through his state, he cannot make it 90%.
Thus it may be argued the atrophy of the old “all powerful” national party concept has led to a wider diffusion of power beyond the narrow boundaries of yore, giving the long tail a hitherto-never-realized importance on the national stage. As a result, any megalomaniac from any demographic with a love for one owns birthday and a desire to construct huge statues in one’s own image can now aspire to sit on the throne of Delhi and any group of regionally powerful but nationally insignificant can hold the country’s policies to ransom.
Somehow that is supposed to be a sign that our democracy is vibrant. Whether it be a comforting sign, I leave for you to judge.