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Why India needs its regional parties

By Seema Mustafa
March 23, 2009 14:21 IST
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It is interesting how the elite suspect, ridicule and demonise those who do not fall in the same special category. And how the concept of the 'other' is created, placed into a stereotype and then used to foment hatred. This is done the world over with the rich and the powerful being more influential than the poor and the marginalised. It is also done for individuals and political parties that fall outside the acceptance parameters of the elite and currently this prejudice is very much on display in India.

Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati is facing the brunt of elite intolerance with the English media -- print and electronic -- reflecting this in more ways than one. The regional leaders are just about tolerated, with the elite making no bones about its preference for a two-party system in India. The two parties of course can only be the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party as both have sufficiently elite leaders (caste and class) to make the parties acceptable. Regional parties are egoistic, divisive, corrupt, autocratic according to India's urban and suave elite, while the BJP and the Congress clearly pass muster.

Mayawati is corrupt they say. And while it is difficult to prove whether she is or not, what about the corruption of those who are in power today and who were in power yesterday. It is true that she flaunts her wealth and those who are acceptable to the elite do not. But was not money made in major transactions by the top politicians in power, either directly or through their sons and daughters? The political grapevine is well aware of these people, with the amounts received in bribes, and the businesses run under benami names known.

But this is not spoken of as it involves those that the elite regard as their own, and pass over with a general "oh all politicians are corrupt." But there is no vilification of the individual, as there is of Mayawati (or for that matter was of Lalu Prasad Yadav) with the BJP and the Congress being able to easily hide the money spinning "enterprises" of its top politicians from public view.

Mayawati is autocratic, they say. But is the Congress dynasty democratic? Is decision making in the Congress taken by the few or the majority? Is the will of a chief minister allowed to prevail over that of the Congress president? Is the Congress prime minister -- if he or she is not from the dynasty -- able to have the final say on any important decision? Is the party able to choose its leader, or does it have to accept dynastic rule? Can Congress legislature units elect their own chief minister, or do they have to follow the diktat from the Centre? Ask S M Krishna, Digvijay Singh, Ashok Gehlot and even Sheila Dixit -- if they are courageous enough to speak the truth the story will be quite different from the image that the party likes to project.

Mayawati is casteist, they say. But is that a crime? Particularly, if the caste is the poorest of the poor, the untouchables who have been discriminated against for centuries? If by being in power, she can ensure that the Dalits are more secure, (a police lathi has not beaten a Dalit to pulp since she came to power) employed and get respect and dignity is that a problem? And are not the BJP and the Congress casteist? They might not say so but their policies in governance and out of it, have ensured that their support base has dwindled (in the case of the Congress) or not expanded (as in the case of the BJP) to cover basically the upper castes in the states. In UP for instance, the BJP has made some inroads into the backwards but the bulk of its support -- and that is not saying much -- comes from a section of the Thakurs and the Brahmins. The Congress has lost the support of the Muslims and the Dalits, and can just about speak for the upper castes in a few pockets of the state. Is governance as these parties practiced it, not casteist?

Mayawati has been in power now twice, she has been in politics now for several years. Has she presided over violence in any part of UP? Like the BJP has, and the Congress has -- in Gujarat, in Delhi, in Mumbai, in Karnataka, in Punjab, in Assam, in Orissa, it is a long list. And here one is not talking just of the central governments, one is talking of the state governments of these parties when they were in power. Is the Christian feeling more secure today under the BJP coalition government in Orissa? Or is the Muslim living without fear in Andhra Pradesh under a Congress government?
This is not to say that Mayawati will be the best prime minister. Or even to say that she will be a good prime minister. This is to say that she will be as good a prime minister as BJP's L K Advani or Congress party's Rahul Gandhi. And that if they have the right to lead this country, so does she. She does not speak English well, she does not wear a new sari every day, she does not have the finesse that makes the elite comfortable.

But she is a Dalit woman who has fought through the prejudice of caste, gender and class and has done so peacefully without the BJP's violence or support from a dynastic right to inheritance.

It is time for the elite to shed its prejudice and intolerance, and realise that India is best represented through the regional parties. And that if these did not exist, violent struggles would have broken out in different parts of the country as the deprived are learning to recognise their rights and are not willing to be shackled and silenced by a two party system that does not meet their aspirations and does not recognise them as equals. It is true that everything is not perfect, far from it, but at least the presence of regional parties has been able to open the valve of discontent and give people alternatives that are important and crucial to the strengthening of Indian democracy.

Seema Mustafa is editor, Covert magazine.

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Seema Mustafa