Quick and somewhat superficial analysis after the Uttar Pradesh election has tended to pronounce the death of regional politics and the arrival of BJP dominance, under the leadership of Narendra Modi. This is being called a throwback to the Congress hegemony of the early 1970s. While there is no doubting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pan-Indian popularity, and his ability to swing votes in even a provincial election, it would be unwise to write off regional impulses. These are still there, but these have changed. It is important to acknowledge their continued existence, as well their contemporary evolution. When regional identities and political parties peaked in the 1990s, they transformed national politics. In an extreme situation, they tended to make even a national election a compendium of state elections. This happened most markedly in 1996 and 2004. Today, we are seeing a reversal of that phenomenon: national politics and a sense of national identity is substantially influencing regional politics.
The demonstration effect of economic and development gains in other states and the relative performance of the Union government; macroeconomic linkages that are uniting hundreds of millions of Indians who previously lived in sequestered and local economies; the advent of communication technologies that are transmitting consumer habits and social traditions, as well as political preferences and pan-Indian hopes, concerns and aspirations — all these are beginning to be felt. That is why even a state election need not be immune to the charisma of a national leader. Nevertheless the voter will now expect delivery — and a realisation of his or her most deeply-felt needs and urges, delivered in a state-specific context. The channel of this delivery will inevitably be a provincial politician and a chief minister. The national leader’s credibility can complement the work of a low-key and still emerging chief minister, but cannot substitute for it.
In 2019 in Maharashtra, voters will deliver a verdict on Devendra Fadnavis. Likewise by 2022 in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP would ideally have found a five-year chief minister who has established a presence as a regional strongman and competent administrator. Voters may be tiring of identity and emotive politics for the sake of identity and emotive politics, devoid of content, policy ideas and delivery. Yet, that shunning of older-style regional politics only heightens the national party’s — in this case the BJP’s — obligation to perform better in government. The voter has to be given enough reason to believe, in five years, that he or she has made the right choice. Otherwise, a regional backlash could result. Mr Modi and Amit Shah, the two senior men in the BJP today, are alive to the need to build regional figures and icons. In states where such politicians are easily available, the party has empowered them. For instance, the campaign for the Karnataka election of early 2018 is being designed by B.S. Yeddyurappa. In Himachal Pradesh, the Virbhadra Singh generation is gradually giving way to the J.P. Nadda generation.
The political capital and electoral appeal of Mr Modi is allowing him, and Mr Shah, to empower new-generation and first-time chief ministers in state after state. Not all the selections will work out, true, but many will. The successful ones will emerge as effective state-level leaders able to hold their own well into the late 2020s. In this careful nurturing and incubation of state leaders of the future, the BJP of 2017 is very different from the Congress of the 1970s — to which it is often but erroneously compared. In that period, Indira Gandhi consciously undermined state leaders and chief ministers, and hacked away at the regional roots of the Congress. Take two examples. The victory of N.T. Rama Rao and his start-up party, the Telugu Desam, in the Andhra Pradesh election of 1983 was a milestone in regional parties. In the previous five years, since the Congress had won the 1978 Assembly election, Indira Gandhi had nominated four different men to serve as chief minister. Not one was allowed to settle down. The longest tenure was that of M. Chenna Reddy, chief minister for two and a half years. The shortest tenure was that of K. Vijaya Bhaskara Reddy – just over three months. In Uttar Pradesh, not one Congress chief minister has managed to complete a full-five year term. The Congress last ran the state in the decade between 1980 and 1989. In this period, it gave UP four different men as chief minister — oscillating between a Thakur candidate and a Brahmin candidate to keep its two pillars happy. One of the four men, N.D. Tiwari, was chief minister on two separate occasions.
As such, when the Congress later accused regional parties of causing instability, the obvious counter-question was: how stable were Congress chief ministers and state governments in the first place? To be fair, the BJP’s four-and-a-half year term in Uttar Pradesh (1997-2002) threw up three different chief ministers. Even so, in recent years the party’s record in other states — Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, for example — has been better. It has allowed its chief ministers an extended run, and trusted them to learn on the job and improve both governance capability and electoral attractiveness. As such, if the BJP finds itself a chief minister in Uttar Pradesh who is simply allowed to govern the state – and who is not undercut by his national bosses — for a full five years, Narendra Modi would already have achieved something Indira Gandhi never permitted. That would be a telling retort to those who make silly and puerile assessments of how “Modi is the new Indira”.