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Given India's social, cultural, and historical diversity, it is only natural that regional parties play an important role in the country's political life. Because of India's federal system, state assembly votes are held in an electoral arena that often enables regional parties to obtain power by espousing issues of regional concern. Simultaneously, the single-member district, first-past-the-post electoral system has given the advantage to national parties, such as the Congress, which possess a realistic chance of gaining or retaining power at the national level and the opportunity to use central government resources to reward their supporters. Although regional parties have exercised authority at the state level, collectively they receive only from 5 to 10 percent of the national vote in parliamentary elections. Only during the governments of the Janata Party (1977-79) and the National Front (1989-90) have they participated in forming the central government. However, as India's party system becomes more fragmented with the decline of the Congress (I), the regional parties are likely to play an important role at the national level.
Regional political parties have been strongest in Tamil Nadu, where they have dominated state politics since 1967. Regional parties in the state trace their roots to the establishment of the Justice Party by non-Brahman social elites in 1916 and the development of the non-Bhraman Self-Respect Movement, founded in 1925 by E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker. As leader of the Justice Party, in 1944 Ramaswamy renamed the party the Dravida Kazhagam (DK--Dravidian Federation) and demanded the establishment of an independent state called Dravidasthan. In 1949, charismatic film script writer C.N. Annadurai, who was chafing under Ramaswamy's authoritarian leadership, split from the DK to found the DMK in an attempt to achieve the goals of Tamil nationalism through the electoral process. The DMK dropped its demand for Dravidasthan in 1963 but played a prominent role in the agitations that successfully defeated attempts to impose the northern Indian language of Hindi as the official national language in the mid-1960s. The DMK routed the Congress in the 1967 elections in Tamil Nadu and took control of the state government. With the deterioration of Annadurai's health, another screen writer, M. Karunanidhi, became chief minster in 1968 and took control of the party after Annadurai's death in 1969.
Karunanidhi's control over the party was soon challenged by M.G. Ramachandran (best known by his initials, M.G.R.), one of South India's most popular film stars. In 1972 M.G.R. split from the DMK to form the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). Under his leadership, the AIADMK dominated Tamil politics at the state level from 1977 through 1989. The importance of personal charisma in Tamil politics was dramatized by the struggle for control over the AIADMK after M.G.R's death in 1988. His widow, Janaki, herself a former film star, vied for control with Jayalalitha, an actress who had played M.G.R.'s leading lady in several films. The rivalry allowed the DMK to gain control over the state government in 1989. The AIADMK, securely under the control of Jayalalitha, who was cast as a "revolutionary leader," recaptured the state government in 1991. However, since 1980, the Congress (I), usually in alliance with the AIADMK, has won a majority of Tamil Nadu's seats in Parliament.
After three decades of Congress rule, the politics of Andhra Pradesh during the 1980s also became dominated by a charismatic film star who stressed regional issues. In 1982 N.T. Rama Rao (popularly known as N.T.R.), an actor who frequently played Hindu deities in Telugu-language films, formed the Te-lugu Desam. The party ruled the state from 1983 to 1989. It also won thirty of Andhra Pradesh's forty-two parliamentary seats in 1984. With the objective of enhancing Andhra Pradesh's regional autonomy, N.T.R. played a key role in the formation of the National Front coalition government in 1989. However, in the 1989 elections, the Telugu Desam won only two parliamentary seats and lost control over the state government to the Congress (I). It was able to improve its showing to thirteen seats in Parliament in the 1991 elections. The Telugu Desam returned to power in Andhra Pradesh after winning the state legislative assembly elections in November 1994.
The Akali Dal (Eternal Party) claims to represent India's Sikhs, who are concentrated primarily in Punjab. It was first formed in the early 1920s to return control of gurdwaras (Sikh places of worship) to the orthodox Sikh religious community. During the 1960s, the Akali Dal played an important role in the struggle for the creation of Punjab as a separate state with a Sikh majority. Even with the majority Sikh population, the Akali Dal's political success has been limited by the Congress's ability to win votes from the Sikh community. The Akali Dal won nine of Punjab's thirteen parliamentary seats in the general elections of 1977 and seven in 1984 but only one in the 1971 and 1980 elections. Similarly, the Akali Dal headed coalition state governments in 1967 and 1977 and formed the state government in 1985, but it lost state government elections to the Congress (R) in 1972, and to Congress (I) in 1980 and in 1992. As the 1980s progressed, the Akali Dal became increasingly factionalized. In 1989 three Akali Dal factions ran in the elections, winning a total of seven seats. The Akali Dal factions boycotted parliamentary and state legislative elections that were held in February 1992. As a result, voter turnout dropped to 21.6 percent, and the Congress (I) won twelve of Punjab's thirteen seats in Parliament and a majority of seats in the legislative assembly (see Twentieth-Century Developments, ch. 3).
The National Conference, based in Jammu and Kashmir, is a regional party, which, despite its overwhelmingly Muslim following, refused to support the All-India Muslim League (Muslim League--see Glossary) during the independence movement; instead it allied itself with the Indian National Congress. The National Conference was closely identified with its leader, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, a personal friend of Nehru, and, after Abdullah's death in 1982, with his son, Farooq Abdullah. Friendship, however, did not prevent Nehru from imprisoning Sheikh Abdullah when he became concerned that the "Lion of Kashmir" was disposed to demand independence for his state. Ultimately, Sheikh Abdullah struck a deal with Indira Gandhi, and in 1975 he became chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir. The National Conference remained Jammu and Kashmir's dominant party through the 1980s and maintained control over the state government for most of the period. In parliamentary elections, it won one of Kashmir's six parliamentary seats in 1967, none in 1971, two in 1977, and three in 1980, 1984, and 1989. However, popular support for the National Conference was badly eroded by allegations of electoral fraud in the 1987 state elections--which were won by the National Conference in alliance with the Congress (I)--and the widespread corruption of the subsequent state government under the leadership of Farooq Abdullah. There was little popular sympathy for Farooq Abdullah and the National Conference even after the government was dissolved and President's Rule declared in 1990. Jammu and Kashmir remained under President's Rule through 1995, and the absence of elections makes it difficult to ascertain the extent of the National Conference's popular support. Nevertheless, it appears that Farooq and the National Conference remain discredited.
During the late 1980s, the AGP rose to power in Assam on the crest of Assamese nationalism. Immigration to Assam--primarily by Muslim Bengalis from neighboring Bangladesh--had aroused concern that the Assamese would become a minority in their own state. By 1979 attention was focused on the controversial issue of determining how many immigrants would be allowed on the state's list of eligible voters. The Congress (I), which gained a substantial share of the immigrants' votes, took a more expansive view of who should be included while the Assamese nationalist organizations demanded a more restrictive position. An attempt to hold state elections in February 1983, and in effect to force the Assamese nationalists to accept the status quo, resulted in a breakdown of law and order and the deaths of more than 3,000 people. The subsequent formation of a Congress (I) government led by Hiteshwar Saikia was widely viewed in Assam as illegitimate, and it was dissolved as part of the terms of the Assam Accord that was signed between Rajiv Gandhi and Assamese nationalists on August 15, 1985. The Assam Accord also included a compromise on the voter eligibility issue, settled the issue of the citizenship status of immigrants, and stipulated that new elections were to be held in December. The AGP was formed by Assamese student leaders after the signing of the accord, and the new party won the December 1985 elections with 35 percent of the vote and sixty-four of 108 seats in the state legislature.
The victory of the AGP did not end the controversy over Assamese nationalism. The AGP was unable to implement the accord's provisions for disenfranchising and expelling illegal aliens, in part because Parliament passed legislation making it more difficult to prove illegal alien status. The AGP's failure to implement the accord along with the general ineffectiveness with which it operated the state government undercut its popular support, and in November 1990 it was dismissed and President's Rule declared. As the AGP floundered, other nationalist groups of agitators flourished. The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) became the primary torchbearer of militant Assamese nationalism while the All Bodo Students' Union (ABSU) and Bodo People's Action Committee (BPAC) led an agitation for a separate homeland for the central plain tribal people of Assam (often called Bodos). By 1990 ULFA militants ran virtually a parallel government in the state, extorting huge sums from businesses in Assam, especially the Assamese tea industry. The ULFA was ultimately subdued through a shrewd combination of ruthless military repression and generous terms of surrender for many of its leaders. The ABSU/BPAC-led mass agitation lasted from March 1987 until February 1993 when the ABSU signed an accord with the state government that had been under the Congress (I) control since 1991. The accord provided for the creation of a Bodoland Autonomous Council with jurisdiction over an area of 5,186 square kilometers and 2.1 million people within Assam. Nevertheless, Bodo agitation continued in the mid-1990s as a result of the demands of many Bodo leaders, who insisted that more territory be included under the Bodoland Autonomous Council.
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Source: U.S. Library of Congress