Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal, and the Curious Voodoo of Regional Parties

Regional parties rarely manage to woo voters outside their own states. Can Mamata or Kejriwal reverse the trend?

4 min read

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Video Editor: Mohd Irshad Alam

Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal have so many things in common, you could call them political twins. Both are stormy petrels of opposition politics. Both are three-term Chief Ministers. Both have inflicted repeated body blows on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in campaigns that were aggressively led by the invincible Modi-Shah duo. In that sense, both now fancy their chances of emerging as the principal challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2024, not in absolute electoral numbers but as the first among equals in a united opposition cohort. There is, however, one critical difference between them.

Mamata Banerjee leads an ethnically cohesive Bengali-speaking regional party, while Arvind Kejriwal is the supreme leader of an ethnically diverse Hindi/English-speaking state party. This difference — regional vs state — is crucial for their ambitions. I shall address this dichotomy after a small detour of history.

The Nehru Years; Congress Titans 'Disguised' Regional Politics Under the Congress Umbrella

The first one-and-a-half decades after Independence were dominated by the Indian National Congress under Nehru’s towering leadership. His democratic DNA and self-confidence allowed regional Congress heavyweights to keep disparate states under the party’s sway. From K Kamaraj in Tamil Nadu to Partap Singh Kairon in Punjab to Biju Patnaik in Odisha to Morarji Desai in Mumbai to Govind Ballabh Pant and Sucheta Kripalani in Uttar Pradesh to Mohanlal Sukhadia in Rajasthan — to name but a few, under whom the Congress enjoyed an unassailable reign.

In some ways, this was “disguised regional politics”, a predictor of the fractious polity of today, since each state was dominated by a political titan, albeit one from the Congress party, which made the INC an “umbrella of regional identities”. But ironically, while Nehru kept regionalisation in check, he also sowed the primary seed that would be in full bloom a few decades after his death, viz the re-organisation of Indian states along linguistic lines in 1956. While it was inevitably required to build a robust federal structure, this re-organisation also unleashed ethno-linguistic aspirations that simply had to create an electoral upheaval.


The Indira Gandhi Years: Accidents of History Keep Regional Forces Invisible

After Nehru’s death in 1964, regional politics got unbridled in the 1967 elections. The Congress lost in eight states and won the Lok Sabha with a wafer-thin majority (54% of the seats). The Congress party’s virtual debacle ignited a power-struggle between the conservative old guard and Indira Gandhi’s left-leaning young Turks. Ultimately, the party split, and Gandhi went to the hustings on a highly populist/welfarist “new deal”, carrying her father Jawaharlal Nehru’s halo.

Indira Gandhi's promise of garibi hatao (remove poverty) swept the INC (Indira) to its earlier legislative dominance, but underneath the impressive numbers was a saga of chronic, inevitable political weakening.

Unlike Nehru, Indira Gandhi was a polarising, centralising politician who was uncomfortable with regional chieftains. She wanted to be the sole fountainhead of power, and her intimidating personality mesmerised the electorate and her opponents for several years. But her “take no prisoners” style of politics ended in the brutal Emergency of 1975. Eighteen months later, she was whipped in the 1977 elections that brought the Janata Party, a hasty coalition of several opposition outfits, to an impressive majority in Parliament.

But once again, an accident of history created a veneer of stability over a political process that was fractioning underneath at an accelerating pace. Because while it seemed that another national party had got created in the Emergency’s cauldron, the Janata Party was an unsustainable ragtag of ideologically inimical regional and splinter groups. It had to collapse, allowing Indira Gandhi another gigantic victory in 1980, creating yet another illusion of the Congress Party regaining its earlier might.


The Rajiv Gandhi Years: A Decisive End of Congress Dominance

However, just when the Congress was weakening again — witness its spectacular loss to NT Rama Rao’s Telugu Desam in 1983 in its bastion of Andhra Pradesh — Indira Gandhi was assassinated a few months before the tough general elections of 1985. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, became Interim Prime Minister and rode a massive sympathy wave to the biggest-ever majority in Indian Parliament, winning nearly four of every five seats. This time, even the savviest political expert thought the Congress had clawed back to Nehruvian heights.

Ironically, it was to be the final flicker of an ebbing flame. The metastasis continued to spread through a hopelessly ill Congress party. A mere five years later, the euphoria gave way to utter despair as the Congress plunged to its second-lowest Parliament tally in 1989, defeated by a coalition of caste, left- and right-wing parties.

Now, the regional phenomenon simply mushroomed. With cruel monotony, one Congress citadel after another fell to all-conquering regional parties — Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Karnataka, Haryana, Gujarat, Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal, Delhi, Andhra Pradesh, Telengana — wherever you looked, regional parties had usurped Congress’s political space, often inflicting the ultimate ignominy as the Congress’s vote-share fell to irretrievable single digits in a few states.


The Curious Voodoo for Regional Parties: Can Mamata Banerjee or Arvind Kejriwal Break it?

Through this phase of uncontrollable regionalisation, a peculiar reality became evident. The spread of each regional party mysteriously stopped at the border of the state in which the patriarch was domiciled. I can cite example after example to prove this curious political theorem. India’s oldest regional party, the Badal family’s Shiromani Akali Dal, held Punjab’s Sikhs in thrall but mattered little to the community in neighbouring Haryana or Delhi. Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal dominated Bihar, but once Jharkhand was hived out, it got confined to the shrunken state, disappearing from Jharkhand. Likewise for Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, which were left with no footprint in Uttarakhand once the hill state was carved out of Uttar Pradesh. Similarly for Chandrababu Naidu’s Telegu Desam, whose earlier dominance sustained in the rump Andhra Pradesh but rapidly evaporated in Telengana once the state was divided.

Why does this happen? Why does the dominance of a regional party get rudely curtailed at the border of the state in which its patriarch is domiciled?

Reams of political analysis have/can be written here, but that’s not our quest for the moment. Instead, we are trying to figure out if Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal, who are trying to break this voodoo, will succeed. Both are using highly dissimilar political strategies to achieve an identical objective — usurp as much of the Congress’s national political space as possible to become the primary challenger to Prime Minister Modi in 2024. Can either break through? Whose differentiated tactics are better? Watch this space for the answers.

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