Regional parties have not yet done enough to counter northern India’s control over Indian politics. Many regional parties in the south have associated or supported the NDA or the UPA Governments in the past. If they complain about Hindi imposition each time it crops up, it begs the question: What were they doing all along to break the north’s hold over national politics?
At a time when Hindutva spears further into the social fabric of Indian society, Union Home Minister Amit Shah pitched his support yet again for the use of Hindi as India’s common language. In the wake of recent events, a series of queries emerge: How did India come to such a pass where the issue of Hindi keeps surfacing at regular intervals? Is our Constitution not clear over the uses of English, Hindi and other languages? Why is India wasting time running around in circles? Doesn’t India owe her growth, in large part, to English? Does English not merit further promotion?
However, the place of Hindi in the national consciousness, how it asserts the supremacy of north India, and the overwhelming current hold of Hindutva merit a deeper and longer contemporary scrutiny. In my view, Hindutva and Hindi have come together to set the tone of north India’s political and cultural domination.
Collectively, the South has driven a lot of India’s growth, and despite Constitutionally-mandated federalism, has suffered at the hands of the Centre and complained about it often. Can we assume a binary where the Centre is the “victimiser” and the States the “victim”? How have States used their agency? We must examine regional parties’ behaviour. Some context first.
A major but under explored takeaway from the recent Assembly polls is the future of regional parties. They are caught between a take-no-prisoners BJP-ruled Centre and the fast-fading Congress. For parties that haven’t broken bread with the single largest party, these have been hard times. In Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party’s loss despite high vote share and the Bahujan Samaj Party’s decimation for a consecutive second time prove how the BJP has knifed into their core constituencies. Yet, the Aam Aadmi Party’s win in Punjab where it beat entrenched rivals demonstrates there is room for a credible alternative. But it’s only at the State level.
Even for the strongest regional parties in other States, the BJP’s wins are a jolt. Inured to a more accommodating Centre in the UPA and the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA eras, how do they square with an ideologically overdriven current BJP?
Yes, Hindutva imbued previous BJP-led Governments, but there is stark difference between then and now. Now, the BJP wants to swamp India. Hindi is one of the arrows in its quiver.
The TMC and the AAP first read the signs. TMC chief Mamata Banerjee sized up the situation after the BJP’s strong showing in the Lok Sabha polls in West Bengal in 2014 and 2019. She put everything into the bruising election she won last year. During the frenzied 2020 Delhi Assembly election, AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal kept away from the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act-National Register for Citizens protests to ensure the AAP didn’t appear anti-Hindu. In West Bengal, Mamata postured her Hindu identity in rallies. Mamata and Kejriwal nuanced their stance towards Hindutva. The BJP controls current public discourse and it has pushed opponents to mould their messaging, and display their Hindu cred to avoid appearing “secular”. As a counter to that, the TMC and the AAP have tried expanding their footprint. In a way, both are unlike older regional players. They understand how power at the Centre was handed away on a platter to the Congress once, and now to the BJP.
So, what’s the nature and intent of most regional parties? They win their States, but still need support from the Centre. Why haven’t they gone pan-India? Over decades they buttressed Congress-led and BJP-led Governments. But by doing so, they paved the way for the supremacy of the Hindi belt and UP as the most powerful State in the Lok Sabha. The Shiv Sena, the Biju Janata Dal, the SP, the BSP, the Nationalist Congress Party, the DMK, the AIADMK, the Janata Dal (Secular), and the Left parties, all collectively failed our federal aspirations by sticking to their regions. This approach is harming them now, and will even more in the coming years. In 2012-2013, JD(U) chief Nitish Kumar was positioned as a rival to Narendra Modi. Now he struggles to retain Bihar. The regional matrix scotched him. Even a small party like Asaduddin Owaisi-led AIMIM has fought elections outside its home base. These three parties — AAP, TMC, AIMIM — realise the importance of breaking the two party hold at the Centre.
In such a milieu with no threat at the Centre, and no State-level players able to take it on, proven wedge-like issues like the role of Hindi are invoked by the north-dominated Centre, and precious political time wasted on distracting the republic from pressing matters.
The Centre acts like the puppeteer, and the non-Hindi States react like puppets. The States are in a funk. The BJP-led NDA knows this, and is seizing the momentum to push through its nativist and hard-line agendas to the extent it can. Such conducive conditions may not be there in the future. We have to see the issue of Hindi in this light. And, what are the States doing?
Notwithstanding its past alliance with a BJP-led Central Government, among the older regional parties, the DMK represents the staunchest opposition to Hindutva and Hindi in ideological terms. In most ways, even its arch rival in Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK, is not an ideological opponent, but an extension. The United Democratic Front and the Left Democratic Front in Kerala are not dissimilar to the DMK and the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu — they are regional rivals and not ideological nemeses to one another. All four rage against Hindi and Hindutva. Almost all the major States away from north India have bipolar rivalries, and are without a strong BJP or Congress presence at the moment, excepting Karnataka. These include Andhra Pradesh and Telangana as well. Why have they not challenged the BJP or the Congress at the Centre? Why have they not made concerted efforts to dismantle the hold of the Hindi heartland, the Hindi language and the might of UP over the last several decades? Why are the States not taking concerted proactive action to smash, break, mould, the north’s overbearingness?
With its genuine distinctiveness vis-à-vis Hindutva, the Dravidian parties of Tamil Nadu only prove their individuation and mettle effortlessly. But one of the inbuilt problems for Dravidianism is that it has always been perceived and imagined as centred on Tamil identity.
Its critiques over caste, and other contributions are known, but haven’t spread from the south to the north, while Hindutva has reached many corners of India. Dravidianism is too closely tied with Tamil-ness, which is a natural strength inside the state, and a weakness outside it. Has its association and synonymy with Tamil identity and politics and language, made Dravidian parties parochial? Make no mistake, it is the case with every other regional party, outside of north India.
However the Tamil parties have a special quality in being the antithesis of Hindutva that needs to reach and percolate to the rest of India. Here, newer parties like the AAP and slightly older parties (but much younger than other regional parties) like the TMC are not burdened with the past. And yet they aren’t ideological like the Dravidian parties. They may have shown their dynamism and can-do in countering and defeating entrenched rivals like the BJP or the Congress or the once-strong CPM. But due to their proximity to the Hindi heartland, where Hindutva discourse is the only currency these days, they cannot take it on full throttle. If the BJP has appropriated and parlayed Ambedkar, then the BJP’s opponents have had to modify their stance towards Hindutva. As have parts of the north-east of India, where the BJP has stamped its presence over the last seven years. So, the full counter to Hindutva can only come from the deep south and not via strategic accommodation, but ideological contestation.
The truth has to be faced. Many regional parties in the south and elsewhere have associated or supported the NDA or the UPA Governments in the past. If they complain about Hindi imposition each time it crops up, it begs the question: What were they doing all along to break the north’s hold over national politics? It’s a loop: the Centre acts, the States react. Why should that be so? In a democracy, why should Hindi majoritarianism assert its power over the rest of India? Why can’t the States of the south or the east, take the lead? Is it too late?
(The writer teaches at Vidyashilp University, Bangalore. Views are personal.)