The major theme of this session was the recent rise of national parties in regional elections. Swapan Dasgupta argued that a successful political party is one that blends national concerns with local issues.According to Dasgupta, the BJP’s victory in recent elections in Assam, India, is significant because Assam is a gateway locale to north-eastern India. He argued that the win challenges perceptions that the BJP’s dominant voter base is Hindi speaking,from the so-called ‘cow-belt’, with Brahamic overtones. He suggested it might become an umbrella party in the future, reflecting a variety of India’s geographical regions.
Dasgupta observed that the Congress party used to have very strong regional leaders and promoted local issues, but that changed under Indira Gandhi’s regime. He argued that the core message of this election verdict was that national politics needs an element of a local touch if local parties are to continue to cooperate at national level.
Salman Khurshid questioned whether the recent success of the BJP meant that it was transforming into an umbrella party encompassing diverse concerns. He observed that if national parties continue to make alliances with regional parties, their base tends to erode. He agreed that the trend towards regional parties was clear and this would lead to a more vibrant democracy over the next twenty years, but whether that interim period was going to be stable was another question altogether. Khurshid suggested that the Congress’s poor performance in the election was primarily the result of a communication problem, and did not require structural or cosmetic changes,like a change in leadership, to turn back the tide.
Mukulika Banerjee took a more cautious approach to election analysis. She argued that a lot of BJP votes were in fact anti-Congress votes, and it was impossible to say if that would translate to a widening of the BJP voter base. Banerjee observed that there was a very enthusiastic voter base in India compared with countries like the UK, but the significance of an increasing number of people choosing the ‘None of the Above’ or NOTA option on ballots was something that needed to further investigated.
John Elliot took a similarly moderate stance on the issue. He argued that the Congress defeat was not very significant and it was unwise to predict its future based on only one round of elections. He countered Dasgupta’s earlier suggestion that the BJP was becoming more of an umbrella party, arguing that it only cared about economic development and Hindutva politics, and therefore did not represent a wide range of issues.
The panel all agreed that there was a global trend towards the right, and rising intolerance and polarising rhetoric in elections. Dasgupta was of the opinion that Donald Trump’s electoral rise was a serious phenomenon because Trumph as tapped into some impulses in America that nobody has talked about before, because these kinds of impulses couldn’t be accommodated into “cozy club consensus.” Similarly, the popularity of politicians like Arvind Kejriwal,champion of the anti-corruption cause,can be seen as a product of a similar process of articulating pent-up anger. Banerjee observed that divisive campaigns such as the one led by Zac Goldsmith in the recent London mayoral elections fell beneath an acceptable standard of public debate, since it went “beyond civility”.Such divisions might appear easy to exploit, and are catchy, but ultimately, they are not the right solutions to problems.