The current moment in Indian politics masks an interesting paradox. Nationally, the Opposition seems to be in the shadows and has failed to politically mobilise citizens on key issues. Yet, in state elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is increasingly facing challenges. For example, a few months ago, it was considered safe to bet on the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) sweeping the Bihar assembly elections, but eventually, the alliance had to fight hard to retain power.
What explains this paradox? The problem lies essentially in our perspective, in which the Congress, despite its diminished stature, seems like the natural opposition to the BJP. And the current disarray in the Congress forces many to think that the Opposition is not in a position to challenge the BJP’s growing dominance. Additionally, as the BJP under Narendra Modi, in its agenda-setting mode, makes swift moves to create one wedge after the other, the ideological confusion in the Congress only becomes further magnified. This image then gets reinforced by the BJP’s superior control over information channels and its narrative-setting prowess.
State-level parties, on the other hand, seem to have developed a clear template to challenge the BJP juggernaut in their respective strongholds — highlight local issues; challenge NDA’s state-level leadership; avoid walking into the trap on national issues, particularly religion and national security; and stay clear of direct attacks on Modi. And the results are there for everyone to see in assembly elections held since 2019. While, in many instances, these state-level players such as Jannayank Janata Party (JJP) in Haryana, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) in Jharkhand, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar have managed to put the brakes on the BJP’s expansionist impulses, the party continues to occupy the pre-eminent position, even in these states.
Why are these state-level parties finding it hard to cross the finish line? And how long can they survive the BJP’s hegemonic ambitions?
First, most state-level parties in the past decade have undergone a generational transition — Akhilesh Yadav took full control of the Samajwadi Party in 2017, Tejashwi Yadav ran the 2020 Bihar campaign, Dushyant Chautala formed an independent party, Uddhav Thackeray heads the Shiv Sena, Sukhbir Badal is the president of the Akali Dal and MK Stalin controls the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham. The patriarchs of many of these formations are now either deceased or in retirement due to ill-health. Ironically, Modi’s rise has coincided with the fading away of regional stalwarts such as Mulayam Singh, Lalu Prasad , Karunanidhi, and HD Deve Gowda. In their heydays, these leaders would have made every possible effort to check the rise of the BJP as an unparalleled election machine in their respective states.
The new leadership of these parties is drawn exclusively from political families and thus carries the baggage of past records. This offers the BJP a potent mobilisational plank on a platter by emphasising the ills of dynastic politics. Modi also has an uncanny ability to leverage political contradictions, which means these leaders must show immense political skill, acumen, and patience. And this is not easy for politicians who have not risen through ranks learning the art of survival.
Second, many of the regional parties began their journey by mobilising large voting blocks of backward classes and Dalits. Their own failure to share power and patronage outside their specific jatis led to disenchantment among other castes supporting them, resulted in a fragmentation of political space. For example, in the 2020 Bihar elections, three separate parties were exclusively banking on Dalit voters — Bahujan Samaj Party, Lok Janshakti Party, and Hindustani Awam Morcha, and there were at least four separate claimants to the backward caste voters: The RJD was wooing Yadavs, Vikassheel Insaan Party was wooing Nishads, Janata Dal(United) was targeting Kurmis, and Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs), and Upendra Kushwaha was focusing on Koeris. This underrepresentation of smaller castes in these parties also gives the BJP an opportunity to create a social coalition of extremes on the ground and with its own upper-caste base solidly behind the party, it enters the competition with an advantage. The possibility of the rise of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen in states with a significant Muslim population post-Bihar is going to further dent the base of these regional outfits who have relied heavily on Muslim votes thus far.
Third, the rhetoric of Congress-mukt Bharat created an impression that the primary target of the BJP’s expansionist impulse is only the Congress. This got further reinforced by the fact that state-level parties outside UP and Bihar managed to largely keep their bastions safe. But the BJP did not lose sight of rural elites who largely support these state-level formations. It slowly worked towards undercutting the political economy base of these parties. The various reform bills related to the farm sector, education, labour, and land are likely to severely affect the power base of these parties. This was a strategy deployed in other states too, with the Devendra Fadnavis government using various means to weaken the NCP’s control over cooperatives banks and sugar mills in Maharashtra when it was in power and the Yogi Adityanath government going after the likes of Mukhtar Ansari, Sunder Bhati, Raja Bhaiya, and Atique Ahmed — all of whom mobilise resources and votes for state-level parties in UP.
In conclusion, state-level parties often had controlling stakes in ruling coalitions and influenced policymaking. And it is likely that in the BJP-dominant system, the bargaining power of these parties will be on the wane. However, given the civilisational diversity of India, political entrepreneurs will continue to populate the competitive landscape. The assembly elections in five states where regional outfits are an important force — Assam, Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal — next year will determine the nature of Indian federalism in the years to come.
Rahul Verma is fellow, Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi
The views expressed are personal