To understand Indian politics, look beyond Modi and New Delhi

In a large, diverse and complex country, it is important to pay attention to regional and state politics

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a rally in Tura last month ahead of the just-concluded Meghalaya legislative assembly election. Getty Images
Powered by automated translation

Over the past week, national media outlets based in and around New Delhi have focused primarily on the positive results for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in three Indian states' legislative assembly elections. All three states are situated in the country’s far-flung north-east region, each with its own political culture, parties and personalities. Yet, the national media’s focus has mostly been on the BJP’s moderate successes and whether they would have an impact on next year’s general election.

Like so much else of the political reporting from newspapers and television channels at the so-called “all-India” level, this framing is incomplete and misleadingly out of context.

Three aspects of Indian politics, in particular, deserve attention.

The first is that, thanks to the design of the Indian constitution, the political culture of a state has far more impact on the average Indian citizen’s everyday quality of life – ranging from policing, to education, health care and welfare services – than the union government. For example, as I noted in these pages, the vast discrepancies in Covid-19 fatality rates between states has very little to do with which government is in New Delhi, but rather the investments that state governments had put into public health and medical infrastructure. Different states even under the same party had radically different results; Haryana’s case fatality rate, for example, was half of Uttarakhand’s, despite both having BJP governments.

The second is that neither the BJP, nor its bitter rival, the Indian National Congress, hold much sway across vast swathes of India. To put this in context, more than 80 per cent of India’s population live in 14 of the 28 states; of these, only five currently have chief ministers from either the BJP or Congress. Instead, both these national parties must court local parties that are built around local identities and local concerns.

Third, any party struggling to succeed at state-level politics is unlikely to be competitive when India’s parliamentary election is held in 2024.

Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma being felicitated by Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma in Guwahati, India, in 2021. Sangma runs a government with support from Narendra Modi's BJP. Getty Images
The political perceptions of a significant number of Indians is shaped by media consumption rather than direct experience with the political process

These dynamics explain why the BJP, like the Congress before it, often goes to such great lengths to try to secure even limited participation in coalition governments in as many states as possible, and failing that, some kind of electoral alliance with locally dominant parties. In several cases, big wins and losses are driven by building and breaking party coalitions rather than big changes in voters' sentiments – in other words, highly pragmatic and transactional politics. For example, the BJP is a junior partner to highly local parties in three out of the four north-eastern states facing elections this year. These parties have allied with the Congress in the past, and could just as easily switch back if they thought there was a benefit to doing so.

As in so many other democracies around the world, the political perceptions of a significant number of Indians is shaped by media consumption rather than direct experience with the political process. As a result, those who rely on national – as opposed to regional – media are particularly prone to missing out on these basic political realities. National political reporting brushes over an extraordinary cultural and political diversity that cannot be reduced to a single story, or a single competition.

It also exaggerates the power and responsibility of the union government for outcomes that it often has little to do with, whether good or bad. Often, even states with positive results have pursued very different pathways.

Tamil Nadu, for example, has India’s second-largest economy, and successive governments – all led by local parties – have relied on the growth of private-sector industrial manufacturing backed by a highly inclusive welfare state. Meanwhile, next-door Kerala, currently governed by a coalition of left-wing parties, has relied on tourism, remittances and even more generous welfare spending to achieve social indicators that are more comparable to Western Europe than the rest of India. Both significantly diverged from the BJP and Congress formulas, irrespective of which party has been in power in New Delhi. Bihar and Odisha, states once noted for poverty, dysfunction and natural disasters, have seen remarkable turnarounds in recent decades, led once again by local parties.

Ironically, given their rivalry, the country that India most resembles in terms of electoral dynamics is Pakistan. Both countries feature significant numbers of regional parties, a great deal of linguistic diversity, and a tendency for their large national media sector to focus on national parties over regional ones, and the union government over the state governments. And much like in India, the stubborn localness of politics and its demographic complexities have placed natural limits on governments with authoritarian ambitions.

Supporters hold up cut-outs with images of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin in Chennai last April. Reuters

However, Pakistan’s experience also holds useful lessons.

Worried about loyalty and stability, Pakistan from its early days after partition attempted to curb political and cultural autonomy in the provinces while centralising administrative power in the name of efficiency and national security. The results were the exact opposite of what was intended: spiralling political instability, unresponsive top-down governance, and anti-competitive crony capitalism. Attempts to reverse this damage through measures such as the 18th Amendment of the Pakistan constitution, which restores power to the provinces, have so far failed to undo the deeper damage.

In the very same period that Pakistan was centralising authority and attempting to tamp down diversity, newly independent India reluctantly took the other road. The successes of Indian democracy didn’t merely come from a progressive constitution bequeathed by its founding leaders, but also from the representative nature of its states. When existing states neglected groups and regions, new states have been allowed to emerge to meet those needs. And when national parties could not find meaningful discourse or the right solutions, local parties did. Union governments have, ultimately, benefited from being open-minded as regional parties experimented with different development models. And in places and times when New Delhi attempted to manipulate or suppress state politics for partisan reasons, the results were often calamitous.

This is worth pointing out, given the emphasis in recent years on strengthening New Delhi's primacy and building a homogenous national culture. The results of the past 75 years of South Asian history should make clear how unlikely that is to succeed or to deliver the benefits imagined. No single government or individual can find solutions for more than one billion people speaking dozens of languages, and with vastly different economic and social needs.

To see that clearly, however, India’s national news outlets as well as outsiders need to start looking around the country a little harder, instead of maintaining their fixed gaze on the power-brokers based in the capital.

Published: March 07, 2023, 5:00 AM