‘Monolith India’ and the vote bank

‘Monolith India’ and the vote bank

Democracy has sharpened the popular diversity by transforming the masses into vote banks.
Flickr / counterclockwise
Flickr / counterclockwise

Vote bank politics has come to become an Indian reality and democracy in India has come to be the fine art of balancing different vote banks with very little exception. Some political parties may openly denounce the politics of cultivating vote banks but overtly or covertly they practice it in their own constituencies, for political survival and advancement.

It has been said that democratic processes would put an end to India's unique divisions, which were wilfully exploited by the colonial masters to perpetuate their rule. It was reasoned that periodic elections would gradually diminish the divisions based on caste, creed and religion. However, in the process of empowering the masses, democracy has sharpened the diversity by transforming them into vote banks and important 'variables' in the political process.

The trend is most prominent in caste categories within the majority Hindu community. Political parties exploit the aspirations of caste groups which differ from one another, or are at least made to think that they differ in significant ways. In fact, many political parties have become synonymous with certain caste categories. The Bahujan Samaj party and the Samajwadi party in Uttar Pradesh represent 'lower' and intermediary castes as do the Dalit Panthers of India (DPI) and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) in Tamil Nadu.

Religion is the other broad category on which hinges the survival of several political parties. The leading party of the ruling National Democratic Alliance, the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), is primarily a Hindu party trying to market Hinduism in the cloak of nationalism. Even its secular face is Hindutva. The Akali Dal in Punjab and the Muslim League in Kerala espouse the cause of the Sikhs and Muslims interests at the provincial level.

Language is another category in the diversity among the peoples of India. Various political parties have cultivated linguistic constituencies. The Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in Andhra Pradesh, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu, as well as the Assam Gon Parishad in Assam, all flaunt their linguistic constituencies.

The other category for political mobilisation is ethnicity. The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) in the tribal-dominated Jharkhand and some other political parties in the Northeast and the hills and tribal regions elsewhere have ethnic groups as their vote banks. Provincialism also forms the basis of political divisions with political parties like the Shiv Sena, DMK, AIADMK, Biju Janta Dal, Assam Gon Prashid, Haryana Vikas Party being province-based political parties.  Then there are parties which have farmers as their constituency. Ajit Singh's Rashtriya Lok Dal in Uttar Pradesh and Om Prakash Chautala's Harayana Vikas Party fall in this category.

The left parties, CPI and CPI (M), are ideology-based political entities and have a committed ideological cadre as their constituency. West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura are the few states where these parties are strong.

Centrifugal forces

Even during the British days there existed the religious, the left, the pro-Raj, the pro-worker, the pro-farmer, and the pro-landed class political parties, among many others, which espoused the cause of these myriad groups thus creating their separate vote banks. The general elections in 1936 and 1946 brought to fore the choices of vote banks for different political parties in India.

The Congress, which had a pivotal role in the freedom struggle, was the natural choice of many Indians for at least the first three general elections after Independence. The Congress vote bank comprised upper caste Hindus, Dalits and Muslims. The party had a smooth run till 1967, when for the first time it lost its majority not in one but in nine states of the country. That year is considered to be a watershed in Indian politics. Since then two sets of political forces emerged in India – one that challenged the all-India supremacy of the Congress and the other that tried to break free from the centralised structure of the state.

In fact, from 1967 onwards there has been a tug-of-war going on in Indian politics. Would political parties with overarching all-India characteristics govern the country or would regional satraps forge linkages to run the affairs of the country? The trajectory that has been emerging of late reveals that all the parties ruling at the centre have had to accommodate parties and groups representing different regional constituencies through coalition arrangements.

The first non-Congress government was formed in 1977 – a coalition of several parties led by the Janata Party, an offshoot of popular socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia's Socialist Party. The hotchpotch coalition had sprung to challenge the supremacy of Indira Gandhi's Congress. It even included the BJP that emerged out of the Jan Sangh (formed in 1967 to represent Hindu aspirations). Since 1967, parties have emerged left and right of the centre at the national level, and a flurry of political parties have come up at the regional and provincial level. The Shiv Sena in Maharastra, the Asam Gon Parishad in Assam, the Telugu Desam party in Andhra Pradesh mentioned earlier are some of them.

The other phase of political development began at the national level with the rise of the BJP since 1984 in the country. The party began cultivating the majority Hindu vote bank by espousing the cause of the Hindus of the country. It attacked the Congress for pampering minorities and cultivated its own constituency on the anti-Muslim platform.

The National Front government led by VP Singh, which drew inspiration from the Janata Party of 1977 and the Socialist Party of 1967, came up in a big way in 1989 by widening the net of the vote bank to other caste categories. Thus the Mandal Commission report which allowed 27 percent reservation for OBCs in government jobs in that year was another watershed event in Indian politics. As a result of the implementation of the Mandal report, intermediate castes like Yadavs and Kurmis came into the forefront in the Ganga plain. Parties like the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Rashtriya Lok Dal in Uttar Pradesh, the Rashtriya Janta Dal and the Samata Party in Bihar and the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa are all post-Mandal offspring.

The United Front government led by Deve Gowda in 1996 was yet another attempt by left of centre forces to govern the country. The United Front government had regional and provincial coalition partners such as the TDP and DMK which played the major role in holding power at the centre in New Delhi. The formation of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in 1998 led by the BJP reinforces the evolution in Indian politics where regional and local political parties are increasing their influence at the national level by forging alliances with national parties to form governments at the centre.

While it is difficult to predict whether national parties will be overtaken by combinations, of provincial parties, all political parties will continue to draw sustenance from diverse categories within the Indian electorate. There is no end in sight to the phenomena of vote bank politics in India. As new groups come forward to demand space in politics, the creation of new vote banks is an accelerating process. There is emerging consciousness among various marginalised groups to get united in the course of political mobilisation.

The result is the emergence of newer political parties to espouse the cause of the differentiated, and often marginalised, of India. The fate of democracy is thus entwined with vote banks. However, in the process of new vote banks being created, it is also true that narrow and parochial agendas are gaining an upper hand even as the broad all-India vote banks lose ground. In the mushrooming of local-regional political parties some would see Indians discovering their political identity, with local and regional considerations gaining ground and it being harder to tie down voters as 'monolith Indians'? The answers open up a big debate — is India is a nation or a nation of nations. Political developments point to the latter.

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Himal Southasian