Regional parties have entrenched themselves in the system of crony capitalism.
Much of the attention in the Radia tapes, featuring lobbyist Niira Radia, has been on the mischief played by journalists. What has received less attention is the close nexus between lobbyists and regional political actors. The tapes show how different factions within the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) were pitching in 2009 for key roles in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. And the lobbyist’s primary concern was to bend this struggle to suit the interests of her clients and place a minister of their choice in the telecommunications ministry.
The DMK, the party of former union telecommunications minister A Raja, has been with all governments in the centre since 1996 (barring brief interregnums in 1998-99 and early 2004), as part of the United Front governments of 1996-98, the National Democratic Alliance government of 1999-2004 andUPA-I andII. Political scientists have heralded the process of accommodation of regional parties in the central power structure as a progressive feature of Indian federalism and have seen it as a deepening of democracy. The explosion from the late 1980s onwards in the number of “effective parties” in the party system was a consequence of the decline of the Congress as a hegemonic force.
The greater regionalisation and the dawn of the coalition era were believed to help a more effective articulation of local interests and do away with patronage based on power at the centre. But in truth regional parties such as the DMK have used their power in the centre to strengthen the patronage politics in their respective states. The DMK, for instance, has moved smoothly into the crony capitalist structure at the centre and has used the resources it has collected to feed the party machine in Tamil Nadu. The DMK government in the state has seen a number of welfare schemes – some well-received ones such as the sale of rice at subsidised prices and the Kalaignar insurance scheme, but also some outlandish ones such as the distribution of colour television sets. What is characteristic of theDMK’s ways of consolidating power is the manner in which the party has conducted itself during elections. Tamil Nadu political watchers point to the “Thirumangalam model” as evidence of the DMK’s successful (though illegal) use of moneyed resources to confer patronage and garner political support. The assembly by-elections in Thirumangalam in January 2009 saw the disbursal of a large amount of cash to win votes. The elections in the Madurai Lok Sabha constituency later that year also featured similar practices. The DMK has in a certain sense perfected this model through the use of resources garnered by its top functionaries in the central government in the award of licences, contracts and project approvals. The leading party in opposition in Tamil Nadu has been no better. Corruption was a feature of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government as well when the party was in power (1991-96 and 1999-2004) in Tamil Nadu.
Both the Dravidian parties have in the past leveraged their presence in the central government to entrench their patronage networks and strengthen the hand of the leadership. The DMK is virtually controlled by a single family which is seamlessly enmeshed in big business and politics. The AIADMK is almost a mirror image, offering very little that is different in the content of its politics and in the structure of its organisation.
The “system” of patronage has served the two parties well during phases of rapid economic growth, but what will happen if an economic crisis were to hit the state is anybody’s guess. The short-term benefits of disbursal of patronage have helped the parties manage substantial banks of support, but they tend to be short-lived as the basic economic and livelihood issues remain unaddressed. That is why newer political parties have emerged in Tamil Nadu such as the actor Vijayakanth-led Desiya Murpokku Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
The telecom scam, the outlook of the regional parties of Tamil Nadu and the UPA’s response, all highlight the substantive infirmities of Indian liberal democracy after liberalisation. At least in the case of the regional parties from Tamil Nadu, the expected beneficial effects of regionalisation are no longer to be seen. The so-called “deepening of democracy” that has taken place is more a case of a circulation of elites. The regional elite has partaken of the larger process of rent-seeking, using resources thus gained to disburse patronage. No substantive alternative processes of representing local interests have been explored by the regional parties and political contestation at the state level is limited to who is more effective in the politics of patronage. No wonder then that both the AIADMK and DMK have vied with each other to be part of the government at the centre irrespective of which coalition is in power in New Delhi.