Can the regional be the national in Indian politics?
As India inches towards fresh general elections in 2024, there is a wind of change in the political landscape. The change is being driven by the trend of regional parties like Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) and Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) trying to expand their footprints beyond West Bengal and Delhi, respectively, and go national. The trend is nothing new, and just a rerun of the past when these two parties had unsuccessfully sought to shed their tag of being regional and aspire for a national status that requires a certain percentage of votes.
While TMC is hoping to expand their footprints in Uttar Pradesh, Tripura, Assam, Goa, and Gujarat, AAP is looking to go beyond their stronghold of Delhi and make its presence felt in Punjab, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, and Gujarat. But why are these two parties spreading their wings beyond the borders of their established spheres of influence? Unlike many other regional satraps of Indian politics, Mamata and Kejriwal nurture the ambition of seeing TMC and AAP achieving the tag of national parties and play a much larger role nationally. And they are not the ones to give up that ambition based on their past failures in those states.
To be recognised as a national party with its own election symbol, a party must have at least two percent representation in the 545-member Lok Sabha from four states, and have six percent of valid votes polled in state legislative assembly or Lok Sabha elections in at least four states. The assessment in TMC and AAP is that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), ruling India since May 2014, is facing the heat of anti-incumbency in the run-up to 2024 general elections, and the Congress is struggling with top leadership, in-house churnings, and a shrinking electoral presence in several states.
This, according to Mamata and Kejriwal, provides regional parties a chance to gain by projecting themselves as a credible third alternative to the two national parties in other states. As part of Mamata's efforts to build a pan-India image for herself, she pointed out soon after her victory by a record margin in the by-poll in Bhabanipur assembly constituency in Kolkata on October 3 that she won from a constituency that comprises 46 percent of non-Bangalee population. With an eye beyond the borders of West Bengal, Mamata's intended message is that she is popular not just among Bangalees, but also among other linguistic communities. In the state assembly elections earlier this year, her main plank was Bangalee sub-nationalism. Politics is the art of changing track without being bluntly upfront about it.
How is the TMC going about venturing into other states? An array of TMC leaders, including Mamata's nephew Abhishek Banerjee, has made several trips to Tripura where fresh assembly polls are due in 2023. The ruling BJP is facing internal dissidence in Tripura, with a section of the party seeking to remove Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb.
TMC and AAP have chosen the path of inorganic growth (model usually followed by big corporate houses) in other states by going for acquisition of the ranks and files of established parties there. While in Tripura, TMC has roped in dissident leaders from BJP, Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), AAP too plans to feast on the sulking leaders of other parties in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, and Gujarat.
The two parties have opted for the easiest route for growth in other states by luring away leaders from established parties there, instead of going for the time-consuming exercise of building their own party apparatus from scratch, which requires considerable political and economic capital. Ironically, TMC had accused BJP of engineering defections in its fold in the run-up to 2019 Lok Sabha elections—when Mukul Roy joined BJP, although he is now back in the TMC—and the West Bengal assembly elections earlier this year, with hordes of leaders from Mamata's party switching to the saffron party.
In recent months, TMC succeeded in not only getting back its leaders who had joined BJP in West Bengal, but also snapping up BJP's former lawmaker from Asansol, Babul Supriyo, and senior Congress leaders Sushmita Dev from Assam and former Goa Chief Minister Luizinho Faleiro. These acquisitions from other parties are aimed at showcasing the regional parties' appeal as viable alternatives to the national parties. But it is questionable whether such import of disgruntled leaders of other parties pays off in the long run and can be an effective substitute for the organic growth of a party from grassroots over the years. There cannot be any short-cut for political success. No one should know it better than the TMC, which found out how almost all of its leaders who went over to the BJP in the run-up to the assembly polls in West Bengal earlier this year faltered in the elections and are returning to the parent party.
For instance, Congress has been reduced to a negligible force in Tripura and Goa, and its leaders have not been able to stem the party's decline. Take, for example, the situation in Goa. Despite emerging as the single largest party in the previous assembly poll with 17 legislators, Congress today finds itself reduced to just four in the 40-member assembly, where BJP got majority by poaching Congress' and other parties' lawmakers. So, how can leaders of the same party be of any help to an aspiring regional outfit like the TMC or the AAP trying to find their feet in an uncharted terrain? Besides, it is being asked if the TMC and the AAP could end up fighting with each other in Goa and cause a split in anti-BJP votes, and in the event of that, if the saffron party would stand to gain. In 2012, TMC had tested the political waters in Goa by contesting 20 seats under the leadership of former Goa Chief Minister Wilfred de Souza of Congress. However, Mamata's party drew a blank in terms of seats and managed just two percent of the total votes. Another Congress veteran in Goa, Churchill Alemao, had unsuccessfully contested South Goa Lok Sabha seat in 2014 as a TMC candidate.
Regional parties' wanting to become national players must take into account the reality that the established national parties would not easily cede space and would rather throw everything into protecting it.
Only time will tell whether or how far the regional players' strategy pays off politically. One thing it has ensured is that it has dealt a major blow to the talks of opposition unity as Congress and TMC are embroiled in a spat. Ironically, the Twitter spat came after the in-person meeting between Sonia Gandhi and Mamata in New Delhi on July 28, apparently to discuss a possible joint strategy for the next national polls.
While TMC has been favouring the presence of Congress in a broader opposition unity against BJP, the Mamata-led party has rightly pointed to the fact that Sonia-led Congress is in the opposition camp in a number of states like West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, and Delhi, where regional parties are in power at the expense of the grand old party. Clearly, an over-arching opposition unity across India is easier talked about than done.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star. He writes from New Delhi, India.