India is a large country having continental dimensions and comprising no fewer than 28 States and 7 Union Territories. It is a multi-racial, multi-lingual nation. There are scores of regional languages, various strains of culture and different loyalties, single as well as multiple. Amidst the amazing diversities, it is natural that regional feelings, regional parties, regional institutions and similar other organizations meant for voicing the aspirations of local people and providing forums for them, should emerge. Indeed, with the passage of years, the multi-faceted aspirations, which together may be described as regionalism, have gained strength.
It is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the fillip given to regionalism by the emergence of the Telegu Desam Party (TDP) in Andhra Pradesh in 3982 has a historical continuity. The growth of this trend can be traced back to the fast unto death by Potti Srivamulu over the demand for the creation of Andhra Pradesh which set in motion the reorganization of State along linguistic lines in 1956.
In principle, regionalism need not be regarded as an unhealthy or anti-national phenomenon—unless it takes a militant, aggressive turn and encourages the growth of secessionist tendencies, (as it did in Punjab during the past five years or so). National unity is not impaired if the people of a region have a genuine pride in their language and culture. But regionalism develops into a serious threat to national unity if politicians do not go beyond their regional loyalty and claim to stand only for their regional interests if regionalism is to be regarded as an unhealthy phenomenon, decentralization too would be objectionable, which of course it is not. So there is nothing basically contradictory between nationalism and regionalism. Nor does the growth of regional values and consolidation of regional forces as such pose a challenge to the central administration of the country.
Any attempt to counter regionalism in the erroneous belief that is not conducive to national interests, would be ill-conceived. Enforced uniformity in a huge country like India would be sheer-folly. Regional parties do not hinder national unity and integrity as long as they do not exceed their area of activity.
Several regional political parties have merged in recent years and have gained strength for obvious reasons. The handful of national parties cannot, by the very nature of things, adequately represent and pursue regional causes. Most of the national patties have even failed to live up to the people's expectations. That explains why more State-based parties have been formed in various regions and are quite successful in their aims.
Regional parties are not a new phenomenon. Several parties have been existing in the country for the last many decades. They have held power, or are still holding power, in many states such as Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Goa, Pondicherry, Jammu and Kashmir, Assam and other States in the North-Eastern region. But never before were regional parties dubbed as anti-national or regarded as a threat to the nation's unity.
People repose confidence in regional parties because they believe that they alone can safeguard the interests of the State concerned and can fight for the legitimate rights and powers of the States without being hamstring by their association with a national party. Regional parties naturally concentrate on safeguarding and promoting regional interests. But they do not sacrifice the larger interests of the country. It is also significant that in the Lok Sabha a regional party (Telegu Desam) now forms the largest opposition group.
Among the causes of the growth of regionalism is prolonged maladministration and neglect of an area or State by the Central, Government. There has been a creeping disillusionment against Central rule. Regional symbols, regional culture, history and in many cases a common language, all promote regionalism. The Centre's indifference to the development of certain regions has created imbalances. Some areas particularly in the North, are well developed, with adequate infrastructure while others are way behind. This explains why there is Telegu Desam in Andhra Pradesh, DMK in Tamil Nadu and the Jharkhand Movement in Bihar.
There is much concern among leaders of the Congress (I) about the growth of regionalism in the country. It is looked upon with suspicion and is even regarded as a challenges to democracy and national integration. But this concern is largely unwarranted; Regionalism will come into conflict with nationalism only when it becomes aggressive and when members of the various regional parties tend to forget that they are Indians first and last, citizens of the same country.
Non-regional conflicts are however a cause for concern. There are constitutional means to deal with regional conflicts, while the communal and caste conflicts have often to be settled in the streets. Inter-regional or centre-region disputes have never created a serious explosion whereas communal clashes frequently cause havoc.
Unfortunately, there are important differences among the regional parties themselves in the country. The differences of approach and policy have hindered the formation of an effective, durable and viable combination of regional parties so as to facilitate the emergence of a national alternative to the ruling party at the centre. The growth of regional parties in itself is nor incompatible with the process of nation-building.
In a democracy, ideological options are open in the sense that any individual or group can adopt any ideology, provided, of course, it is within the legal framework. Political parties have the freedom to compete for power and pursue their respective ideologies. Since ideologies are no respecters of geographical boundaries, they also check the exclusiveness of regional identities. In fact, it has been the decline of the party system in recent years that has inflated the role of regionalism in the country.
As for the cures, three suggestions may be made. First, there should be a greater spirit of accommodation on the part of the Central authorities. This implies a reversal of the process of concentration of power which has admittedly been much in evidence in the country, causing resentment among the opposition-governed State. Power and authority must be shared on an equitable basis between the Centre and the constituent units, of the Indian Federation. Harmonious, balanced growth should be the administrations aim, not suppression of local desires and demands. Of course, firmness is necessary when regionalism, assumes militant forms, as it has done in Punjab m the form of operation Blue Star and Operation Thunder, where in recent years certain groups of misguided youth started running a parallel government and creating chaos. Regionalism must not be allowed to become a shield for militancy, extremism, establishing a reign of terror and carrying on other anti-national activities.
The regional parties patriotism should not be suspected, regionalism does not weaken India. The majority groups should not become arrogant or obsessed with power. They should be generous towards the minorities, religious, cultural and linguistic Suppression of regional aspirations is not the right remedy.
There are some uniting factors which need to be further promoted. The emergence of a national market, the spread of communications, the influence of all India institutions, the widening transport facilities, the vast network of the electronic media, the establishment of a common structure of formal education almost throughout the country (four states have yet to switch over to 10 plus 2 plus 3). These factors helps to counter regional tendencies.