The present time has a strange quality to it. It reminds you of the past instead of prodding you to look to the future. Something happens and we look to the past for analogy, lesson, mourning, or celebration. Our time is regressive; we do not have to be reactionary, but it is good to be aware of its specificity.
So with the unprecedented rise to electoral power of the BJP and its leader Narendra Modi, are we reminded of something of the past? In this context, some will of course refer to the post-Indira Gandhi assassination elections handing a massive majority to the Congress, or the general election results of 1977. We witnessed similar results in state elections also in various states. One may also say that the law of the index of opposition unity will now come back. By simple logic, any bloc getting nearly 40 per cent of the votes will reach the mark.
The present situation, however, recalls a more fundamental similarity with the structure of power in the past. To elucidate the similarity briefly: India cannot afford to have an absolutely centralised structure of power, and whatever form of power may emanate from Delhi must have equally emphatic delegated layers to it. Thus, the imperial system must have the designated regimes and zones of local powers with respective functions over the lives and deaths of the commoners.
Except for the last one hundred and fifty years, the Indian state was never the centralised one with which we are familiar today. There were always regional kingdoms, cumulative indigenous changes at local levels reflecting a wide variety of commercialisation, formation of social groups, and political transformations, and different rates of expansion of organised State power. And, whenever powerful and determined kingdoms threatened to overwhelm the entire region and turn into an empire, the stakes became high and led to the formation of alliances to protect regional autonomies. Imperial power in pre-British times depended on many subsidiary alliances, and the decline of empire meant in the first place the instability of those alliances.
Social groups in many places became classes, as happened with the Jats in the sprawling countryside of northern India. The commercialisation and political identity of major local groups went ahead together. Besides the sovereign power, there were other varieties of power. In times of the decline of the sovereign power, the confederal nature of state politics would be clearer – but even in the high times of imperial power and glory, it was evident that beyond some designated matters, power devolved in a variety of ways, and alliances played a big role. Regional viceroys were crucial in maintaining the subahs, which would have to be given relative autonomy sooner or later. Else the imperial army would spend year after year in the area to control rebellions and lawlessness.
Alongside the transformed remains of old royal systems whether in the north or in the south, a range of local powers existed largely outside the imperial and royal systems, which had been built on the rich produce of the valleys and the plains. Only lightly touched by the mainstream of imperial and royal political culture, these were regions and localities based on local economies. In some cases, the local princes acted as protectors of local peasantry against the all-consuming, all-imposing sovereign of Delhi.
Of course, there is a strong line of thinking that the modern State changed all this. The State is now irrevocably centralised. The relative autonomy of the regional kingdoms and the subahs is gone forever.
Yet, the counter question can be: do not the results of the votes this time tell us that the present situation exhibits symptoms of the reappearance of the earlier patterns of power, best described as a combination or a co-existence of the centralised and capillary forms? As then, now too there are palace coteries; now also the State seeks to extend its dominance by restructuring local forms of power and establishing new ones; community divisions are used in the interest of power; and now also the absorption of the ‘fringe’ economies and polities in the ‘mainstream’ causes enormous discontent and rebellion. The suggestions to federalise sovereignty in view of the permanent characteristics of the Indian state system remain valid.
Mark out, then, the new fault line in the political structure. On the one hand, we may have a strong Centre bouncing back on the basis of a massive electoral majority, right wing republicanism, Hinduism, ruthless developmentalism, and the active support of the corporate class. On the other hand, entrenched and strong regional leaders appear as protectors of their respective peoples. After all, the entire eastern coastal belt from West Bengal to Tamil Nadu with the additions of Kerala and Telengana has, on the whole, retained faith in their respective rulers. If you add to this the factor that the BJP got nearly a 100 seats from only two states – UP and Bihar – you get a sensible scenario.
One may ask then: What is the secret of the staying power of the regional leaders? Of course, the easy answer will be that in each case we find a combination of strong personality, party structure built around the unquestioned leadership of one person, local, that is, state-based identity, and stability of local economy. But besides these, there is one more factor – the populist policies of these state governments. And unlike the administration at the Centre, the state administration is closer to the people and therefore has more capacity to deliver. Against rising prices, shrinking public expenditure on social security, rampant inflation, unbridled corruption, and uncontrolled forces of globalisation, for the people of the states, populism remains the best defence.
There are two points of anxiety in this scenario. First, as of now, none of the political forces has the political wisdom to bind these federal forces into a front and erect a platform of democracy. Second, these regional leaders have attained their unquestioned status by decimating the opponents internal to their states. There is no dialogic trend in the states, which could have made their respective positions stronger on the basis of alliances with other forces within their states.
The author is Director, Calcutta Research Group