South India and the metamorphosis of identity politics post 2019 elections: Is it time for decentralization?

If there is a country that is truly linguistically, religiously and ethnically diverse it definitely is India. Long before multiculturalism became a buzzword in the Wild West, India was already a democracy that had handled diversity in a way that perhaps could never be replicated elsewhere, not to forget the magnitude of it. Many Western scholars and academicians were rather skeptical of India remaining as a single political entity primarily owing to its diversity.

Fast forward to the 2019 mandate in the general elections, it was overwhelmingly in favour of Prime Minister Modi. This was only possible because, for the first time in independent India’s political history the masses have rejected the entitled elite, rising beyond the politics of caste & religion and rejected the dynasties that ran the country for far too long. This indeed is a tectonic shift and can be seen as the beginning of the end of identity politics based on caste & religion. In fact PM Modi categorically stated in his victory speech that from here on there will only be two castes 1) the poor and 2) those that bring the poor out of poverty. PM Modi in his speech to the NDA coalition also touched upon BJP’s outreach to the minority communities of India and winning their confidence. This indeed is intended at sending a strong signal to the opposition camp that the days of vote bank politics are numbered.

Identity politics of the South

However, the identity politics in India is not restricted to caste and religion, India being a diverse multilingual society; one can foresee and predict the factions based on linguistic pride coming up in a big way in the future. The metamorphosis of identity from now on will be from that of caste & religion to that of language & region. The history of independent India is filled with instances where the identity politics of language came up to the forefront eventually paving way for establishing states on a linguistic basis starting with Andhra Pradesh way back in 1953. Potti Sriramulu’s fast unto death triggered massive riots across the Telugu speaking areas of the erstwhile Madras Province and led to its bifurcation. Similarly, during 1983 when the Telugu identity was yet again compromised, a new leader in the form of the NTR emerged with the establishment of the Telugu Desam Party, which clean swept Andhra in the following elections.

In 2014 a sub regional identity emerged leading to the formation of Telangana. The complex dynamics of the center-state relationship in India is likely to emerge again as there is a growing crescendo in the Southern states, barring Karnataka, that their aspirations, views and ambitions are being disregarded by the center under the BJP administration. People in the South are being led to believe by local parties that the political clout of the Hindi heartland is alienating the South. In fact the arithmetic of the recently concluded elections is an indication to this fact, where BJP won 300+ seats all by itself without any support from regional parties. This was the template of forming governments in the past where national parties always had strong regional coalition partners. The trend has reversed over the last couple of general elections and is being portrayed as a worrisome sign for the South. The bargaining capability of the South is diminishing quickly.

In spite of being a part of the NDA for four years during the 16th Lok Sabha, the TDP did not successfully negotiate the special category status (SCS) for Andhra as mentioned in the AP bifurcation act of 2014. TDP withdrew from NDA which had a devastating impact on TDP’s fortunes in the elections, but had none whatsoever on BJP’s electoral fortunes. Another point to substantiate the emergence of dissent down South is the vandalism of the signboards containing the Hindi alphabet in Bengaluru metro stations in Karnataka by some Kannada linguistic pride groups, ably backed by political parties like the Congress to keep BJP at bay, right before the previous assembly elections. In fact, Karnataka is the only state in India to have its own flag.

Similarly, post the results of the general elections, Y.S. Jagan, the chief minister elect of Andhra stated in several interviews as to how he prayed to god that the BJP does not cross the 250 figure in the Lok Sabha polls, so that he could become a coalition partner and bargain for the SCS. Another instance of the rejection of the northern dominance in politics is in the state of Kerala, where despite the mishandling of the Sabarimala issue by the left parties, BJP failed to make any significant impact in terms of seats won. In fact, the huge margin of victory by Rahul Gandhi in Wayanad can be viewed as the rejection of the BJP which is seen as all about Hindi, Hindutva and Hindu. Similarly, DMK leader and the chief minister elect of Tamil Nadu expressed a rather extreme view of South India seceding from the rest of the country and form another country called “Dravida Nadu”.

On the other hand, this perception of alienation of the South by BJP is being exploited by Jihadi and missionry groups for proselytizing purposes supported by political parties. There have been several reported cases of Jihadi elements murdering Hindus both in Kerala. In fact, the recent Easter day bombings in Sri Lanka were carried out by Jihadi’s trained in South India. While, one might term these incidents to be outright gross exaggerations and a false alarm, the issue is much larger.

Is it time for decentralization and a stronger federal structure?

The presidential style of campaigning that was centered on PM Modi, has worked well for the BJP. However, the same rhetoric of ousting one single individual by the opposition camp has led to their disastrous performance. This is definitely better than an unstable coalition of parties with mutually contrasting views but the representational aspect and the participation of the South in matters related to governance processes and issues of national importance to some extent is being relegated to the back burner. The question that naturally arises “Is decentralization of governance the way ahead?” In fact it has to be the modus operandi for an aspiring India. Why should the decision of the construction of a subway in South India be taken some 1000 miles away in Delhi? Or for that matter decisions like allocation of a trains connecting two Southern cities or construction of airports be taken in Delhi?

Mega projects like Polavaram in the South are taking eons for completion due to the non availability or the lack of sanctions from the center. Every time there is a shortage of funds, the state governments inevitably run to the center with their hands stretched for help. It is understood that this is a way to reduce corruption and misappropriation of funds by the politicians of the South, but this is a huge impediment to the progress as being made to believe in the South. Criticizing the center, Southerner’s come up with arguments such as, 30 percent of the nation’s tax revenues are contributed by 20% of the population down South. Hence, this treatment of the Southern politicians as a pariah with stretched hands is being made to be viewed as deliberate discrimination. It is true the Bimaru states like Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar need attention, but it does not mean that the focus primarily is restricted to these states when it comes to distribution of central funds just for political gains. In fact the South that has performed well on several indicators including birth control has been penalized by the center for their efforts instead of acknowledging them.

States like UP and Bihar got away with impunity despite no significant efforts when it comes to population control. Today, the Southern states have almost equaled the birth rates of that of Western Europe, while the Hindi belt is languishing behind with high number of births per mother. What exacerbates this situation is the movement of labor down South, which is seen as opportunities galore leading to a significant shift in demographic. This will eventually lead to a tussle of identities as witnessed in Maharashtra which led to the emergence of Shiv Sena as a political entity to preserve the Maharashtrian identity.

The only solution is to strengthen the federal structure of India, similar to that of the United States of America (USA). USA is a country with 330 million people, but has 50 states, while India is a country with 1.4 billion people with just 29 states. The political monopoly of states like UP and Bihar has to be broken as their impact on the elections has a massive swing and tilts the fortunes of the rest of the political parties towards doldrums. This should be seen in a positive light and is the only way for progress by bifurcating UP into 4 different states. It is frankly quite ridiculous that one state in India holds the entire population of the nation of Brazil and 10 times the population of Australia. Similarly, funds generated in the form of tax revenue in a region need to be spent on the development of that region exclusively.

Of course the percentage revenue that is appropriated to the state and center can be deliberated upon and decided. This also will lead to reforms in taxation. In addition to this, security issues and issues related to national importance can be effectively resolved with the strengthening of police and security forces in a decentralized customized structure with each district having its own based on requirements. It is astounding to note that the number of police per 100000 people in India is just 150. India is blessed with such a long coastline of 7500 kilometers but it is astounding to note that the volume handled by all the major ports in India combined is less than that handled by the Chinese port of Shanghai. The only way things move faster and infrastructure development happens at a rapid pace is when the authority and responsibility is decentralized. Be it formation of new states or regional units of institutions or the use of technology, this is the way ahead for efficient governance in India with the world’s second biggest population.

This should be done in a methodical manner with proper vigilance and checks and balances in place. However, it has to be initiated at the level of policy by the new government on a priority basis. In fact decentralization should eventually percolate down every ministry and institutions at the most fundamental level need to be empowered. This will also lead to the much needed bureaucratic reform in the country and reduce red tape.

As so often happens in India, unless a mob causes serious damage to human lives or property, governments do not react. Even if they do, the measures are normally ad-hoc and instinctive rather than a permanent solution with a vision. Political parties down South are likely to come united on a single platform eventually by propagating the idea of a strong sense of discrimination against South Indians. This is a national security issue and should not be hijacked by anti national elements to disrupt peace and harmony. Secession movements is not something that India can afford at this point in time where it is barely taking off. The faster these issues are resolved and decentralization happens the better it is for the progress of the country and is the only key to prosperity.

After all, unless the aspirations are met and the wealth increases no real progress in attitude happens. This forms the basis of how India can realize its dreams of being a global power and immerse itself in the glory of the past as the home for spirituality and self realization.

References

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