In 1963, a year after the disastrous India-China border conflict and shortly after the all-powerful Congress suffered major reverses in parliamentary bypolls, five leaders met secretly in the dead of night at the temple town of Tirupati. The men who assembled were powerful regional bosses of the Congress: S Nijalingappa, N Sanjiva Reddy, K Kamaraj, Atulya Ghosh and Srinivas Mallayya. Those unable to attend included C B Gupta, S K Patil and Biju Patnaik. The meeting was short for there was only a one-point agenda: to decide on a successor to the ailing Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
In May 1964 when Nehru passed away, the regional bosses were ready. There was no real succession battle as the Syndicate - as the regional grouping came to be known - quietly manoeuvred the election of the man they had selected at Tirupati the year before: Lal Bahadur Shastri.
Nearly five decades after that fateful Tirupati meet, there is growing speculation that 2014 will once again witness the states asserting their hold over the Centre. In 1964, regional interests had been accommodated under the protective cover of an old-style Managing Agency. By comparison, today's Congress is akin to a family enterprise with branch offices that give the impression of having seen better days. Regional interests and aspirations that were once a feature of a rambling national movement have moved on and found homes in regional parties that now control state governments. Apart from the northeast, the Congress has lost its domi-nant status in the rest of India, including in states where it nominally controls a government.
At the turn of the century, it seemed that the BJP would step into a void created by the Cong-ress. However, its progression into a truly national party has turned out to be illusory. Hindusolidarity has proved an ephemeral binding force for disparate castes and communities. Notwithstanding its expansion into Karnataka, the BJP has also failed to transcend the High Command culture that has plagued the Congress. Where the party has made a deep dent - like in Gujarat under Narendra Modi - it has operated as a regional party.
If there is a Tirupati-like conclave in 2012 to decide on a future government in Delhi, its participants will not be bound by the protective cover of a natio-nal party. Federal impulses in India have developed independent roots, outside the structures of the two main national parties.
At one time, particularly after the disastrous United Front experience between 1996 and 1998, it seemed that the impulses could be accommodated within coalitions built around the nationalparties. The Natio-nal Democratic Alliance was forged at a time when the BJP was the single largest party in the Lok Sabha and was seen to be growing. Similar circums-tances propelled the emergence of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in 2004.
After the disastrous showing of both the Congress and the BJP in the Uttar Pradesh assembly election, there is every likelihood that the sum total of seats won by the regional parties could equal, if not exceed, the tally of the principal national party, be it Congress or BJP. In 1996, the combined strength of the regional parties that made up the United Front could not exceed that of either the BJP or the Congress.
It was this absurd arithmetic (to which was added the unwillingness of the CPM to join any government where it was not the dominant partner) that made the tenures of H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral so farcical. The Deve Gowda government, for example, was brought down on Sitaram Kesri's flight of whimsy and Gujral fell on the question of the DMK's alleged culpability in the murder of Rajiv Gandhi seven years before.
The lesson that India drew from the UF experiment was that for coalitions to endure, there has to be a national party to lead it and provide it cohesiveness. Consequently, both Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh have lasted their full terms.
Could 2014 witness this arrangement turned upside down? In short, could India face a situation whereby the prime minister of any future coalition government is decided, not by a national party, but by a committee in which the regional parties together have a greater say?
If indeed this does happen, old allergies may disappear and new, less ideological alliances may surface. In 1998, N Chandrababu Naidu, the convener of the UF, abruptly jumped ship after the election and extended support to the NDA. And even if a national party secures its prime minister, could that person be the preferred choice of the regional parties rather than the national party itself? For both the BJP and Congress this has ominous implications. Of course, the transition to a new and, perhaps, confederal system of coalitions is premised on the assumption that voting patterns in the state elections will be replicated in a parliamentary poll. Hitherto, the national parties have invariably performed better in Lok Sabha elections and have been inclined to make the national contest a quasi-presidential race. However, with economic decision-making devolving increasingly to the states, the disjuncture in political choice between the national and the state level may not be so marked.
The time may have indeed come for another Tirupati-style conclave of the regional bosses to prepare for a time they could decide India's next prime minister.
Times of India, March 14, 2012