OVER the past three decades India has seen a rapid rise of strong regional parties and satraps who not only control the destiny of the denizens of their respective areas of influence but also seek to control the direction of nation policies, processes and politics.
The year 2012 re-emphasised the relevance of regional parties and domination of its leaders. As the year drew to a close, both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party realised the difference a strong leader in a State can make — Virbhadra Singh in Himachal Pradesh and Narendra Modi in Gujarat — albeit with different agendas.
The former forced the Congress high command to accept his terms before scoring an emphatic electoral victory, sending out a message of being an undisputed party leader in Himachal.
In the Modi scheme of things, his third consecutive win in Gandhinagar should steamroll any opposition to his ambition of being the Prime Ministerial candidate ahead of the 2014 General Election.
While both Modi and Virbhadra Singh were reared in the political akhara of the two leading national parties, from among the regional outfits, young Akhilesh Yadav pedalled the Samajwadi Party to power in Uttar Pradesh with firm directions from seasoned warhorse, Mulayam Singh Yadav, a wrestler-turned-politician, who too nurses the ambition of being the Prime Minister.
In the East, Mamata Banerjee last year established herself as the undisputed leader in West Bengal by snatching power from the well-entrenched Left Front, while in the south Jagan Mohan Reddy is preparing to test political waters in Andhra Pradesh with his nascent YSR Congress Party.
Even former Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa is charting out plans for a political life outside the BJP.
The phenomenon of regional parties and leadership is not new in Indian politics. The first time such forces came to occupy power at the Centre was through the Janata Party, a blend of the Right of Centre and Socialists, coming together in the post-1975-77 internal Emergency phase.
That experiment did not last long nor did the 1989 multi-hued coalition sculpted by Vishwanath Pratap Singh. Since then the prognosis of political pundits is that the era of coalitions is here to stay.
The sub-script is that the driving force behind such a development is the rise of regional forces under strong leaders with mass following in the states and leveraging political power for a greater say in a federal setup.
If the likes of Mulayam Singh and Nitish Kumar of Janata Dal (United) are well-entrenched regional leaders in the Hindi heartland, there is a Naveen Patnaik of Biju Janata Dal in the East and Jayalalithaa of the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in the South.
For the people of Punjab, Haryana and Jammu and Kashmir, the presence of regional parties and strong leaders is not new.
What with the Shiromani Akali Dal, Lok Dal in different manifestations and the National Conference and the Jammu and Kashmir People's Party having shown their political mettle over the past few decades.
This trend is growing and is striking deeper roots. Keen students of political science observe that perhaps the near-absence of a culture of recognising and allowing the growth of genuine leadership in some national parties has led to such a development.
Or is it a case of inability of strong regional leaders to work within an established system of national parties, preferring to lead on their own terms rather being led? These are issues that continue to form part of discussions among political parties, leaders and their followers.
While individually and collectively regional leaders hope to shape the contours of the next Government in Delhi, the debate on the impact of regional parties and policies that sometimes appear to be in conflict with national priorities remain inconclusive.
Opposition to the creation of the National Counter-terrorism Centre or the TMC Chief Mamata Banerjee playing truant instead of joining Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on an official delegation to Bangladesh to execute a water-sharing treaty are manifestations of divergence of opinion spiking national plans.
Mercurial behaviour resulted in Mamata Banerjee falling out with the Congress-led UPA and her strident opposition to Foreign Direct Investment in multi-brand retailing. However, there is increasing evidence that regional parties and their leaders are being wooed by other countries.
The US sought to reach out to Mamata on FDI, while Britain and the European Union suddenly recognised the importance of Modi even as Nitish Kumar travelled to Pakistan at the invitation of the Punjab province Chief Minister. Signs of changing times.