Southern India challenges BJP’s divisive politics

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Chandrababu Naidu, chief minister of the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, speaks at the India Economic Summit at the World Economic Forum in New Delhi in Nov. 2014. He is a key leader from the South opposing the BJP. Photo: Reuters/ Anindito Mukherjee

This week ministers from key states in southern India met in Kerala and decided to challenge the allocation of funding they receive from New Delhi.

Their primary objection is terms of reference in the 15th finance commission – that is, the principle that national funding is allocated on the basis of population and relative poverty.

States with a larger population that are relatively poorer get a greater share of Union government outlays. Meanwhile, states in southern India – such as Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, plus Puducherry – which are relatively more developed and have controlled population growth, get less.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinrayi Vijayan, in an article in The Hindu on April 12, argued that state governments are under enormous financial duress and cannot to fulfil their “constitutional obligations” to the people because their ability to raise finance is limited. He said the “Unity of India can be preserved only if there is real fairness and equity in the matter of devolution of powers and resources”.

Dispute points to deeper issues

Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has defended the status quo, saying the allocation of resources is based on “appropriate criteria” and rewards controls on population growth. Center-State disputes over financial allocation in independent India are not uncommon. Richer states have to subsidize poorer states, but in the present political context this issue needs to be seen as a deeper political and ideological confrontation.

Firstly, the implication of the economic argument is that injustice is being done to progressive states and hence regional and linguistic identities, which are especially pronounced in south India.

This is a counter to the BJP’s use of Hindu nationalism as a homogeneous ideological platform across the country, and the portrayal of one party and leader as the custodian and champion of national identity, as defined by his party. The subtext of the allegation is that the BJP’s core ideology is a threat to federalism and the power of states.

For instance, identity assertions like having a separate state flag for Karnataka by the Congress government, though aimed at electoral dividends in a poll-bound state, is a reiteration of a linguistic identity to counter the BJP’s nationalistic drumbeat. The allegation of economic injustice feeds into victimhood for the identity and fuels it further.

India is a Union of states and a delicate balance of fiercely different regional identities and the art of nation-building, including the linguistic division of states in 1957. It has accorded autonomy to those identities and woven them into a nation.

Strong regional identities

But ruling party’s Hindutva ideology aspires to a homogenous national identity and in that fails to recognize strong linguistic and regional identities. This is perhaps why the BJP is weak in states like Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh, where linguistic identities are extremely strong.

And in the two decades up to 2014 regional parties asserted themselves in national coalition governments, which ensured greater federal pressure at New Delhi. But the fact that the BJP, revolving around one personality, has an absolute majority has meant that regional forces do not have representation in the Union government.

The fact that the ruling party at the center has also won power in most states has created a situation where states may have less capacity to influence the national government, and there are heightened fears that states not ruled by the BJP, which are in a minority, will not get a fair treatment from Delhi.

States that have raised the challenge are Kerala, which has a communist government, Karnataka and Puducherry, which have Congress governments, and Andhra Pradesh, ruled by the Telugu Desam Party, which recently quit the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in Delhi. The Congress Party here is making an effort to be like a regional party and help bolster these sentiments.

Efforts are on to rope in states like West Bengal and Congress-ruled Punjab, but the main thrust seems to be to unite southern states against the center. More than economic considerations, support for this move depends on whether a regional party wants to be on the right side of the BJP or has decided to oppose it.

For instance, Tamil Nadu has not endorsed the demand by its neighbors and that may be because the ruling faction of the AIADMK in power in the state is desperate to keep on the right side of the BJP. Also, Telangana, the economically weakest of the five big south Indian states, did not send a representative as the Telangana Rashtriya Samiti, the party in power in the state, has the Congress as its primary opponent. TRS does not want to be part of any initiative with its rivals.

In fact, the success of the move to challenge the center may entirely depend on the electoral results in Karnataka, which goes to polls on May 12. The challenge would gain momentum if the Congress retains Karnataka, but may fizzle out if it loses to the BJP.

However, the challenge itself exposes deeper faultlines and raises the question of whether regional and linguistic identity assertions can counter the BJP’s Hindu nationalism. More importantly, if it does prove a counter, is that healthy for India?

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