When regional parties began to appear in India following the first signs of the Congress' decline in the 1960s, they were hailed for two reasons. One was that they reflected local aspirations, which a 'national' party tended to overlook. And the other was that they were said to represent the subalterns or the marginalized sections that didn't have much of a say in a party like the Congress, which was dominated by the upper castes.
The 122-year-old Congress has long been regarded as a national party because of its role during the independence movement. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has lately acquired this status because of its vote share and number of seats in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of the Indian parliament) - 22.1 percent and 138 seats against the Congress's 26.6 percent and 145 seats. However, the BJP hardly has any presence in the south and the east.
The first major regional parties to make their presence felt were the Lok Dal in the Hindi heartland states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Haryana in the north, and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu in the south - both championing the cause of the backward castes.
Over the years, there has been a proliferation of such parties like the Janata outfits - the Janata Dal-United and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) with their bases in Bihar, the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa and the Janata Dal-Secular in Karnataka. In Tamil Nadu, there is now the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), which broke away from the DMK, and other similar organisations.
Their growing presence is due to the failure of the Congress to recover its lost ground, turning it virtually into a regional party. Despite this limitation, however, the Congress still retains something of a national vision because of its long history.
If the regional parties have failed to acquire such an outlook, the reason is that their focus remains solely on either their provinces or castes or ideologies despite their participation in coalitions at the national level.
It is obviously because of their restricted vision that they are rarely entrusted with portfolios like external affairs or home or finance. The 'national' parties prefer to keep these with themselves because their regional allies simply do not have the ability to think on a scale that is not limited to their states or communities or doctrines.
Not only that, they are also hamstrung by strong prejudices that can hamper their functioning in such crucial ministries, which have to operate on an international stage or deal with financial matters affecting the entire country or act impartially where law and order is concerned.
For instance, as the praise of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi for a slain leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has shown, the DMK leader's Tamil sub-nationalism has made him turn a blind eye to the LTTE's horrendous record of terrorism, which includes the assassination of Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
It doesn't take much perspicacity to see that a party like the DMK cannot be given charge of foreign affairs because its tunnel vision makes it blind to anything outside its immediate environs. It is also evident that being a partner of an alliance at the centre hasn't enabled it to broaden its outlook in any way.
Similarly, the ideological proclivities of the communist parties will make the first party in any coalition wary of putting them in charge of either external affairs or finance. As their opposition to the India-US nuclear deal shows, they are driven more by the viscerally anti-American Cold War mindset than any consideration of what may be beneficial to India.
In fact, the observation of Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, that his party will not let India become part of an American strategy to encircle China shows that the old Maoist slogan, 'China's chairman is our chairman' still has its adherents among Indian communists.
It is easy to understand, therefore, why Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has recently been lamenting the fractious nature of his coalition government, which puts a virtual veto power on policy decisions in the hands of parties with a blinkered world-view.
Where the communists are concerned, their anti-Americanism extends from the nuclear deal to economic policies as well since they regard Manmohan Singh's market-oriented 'neo-liberal' economic reforms as part of a 'conspiracy' to impose the pro-capitalist policy preferences of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
What is noteworthy is that neither the Congress nor the BJP is in a position to get a majority of its own in the Lok Sabha in the near future. As such, they will have to continue to depend on the small, myopic regional parties.
As the impasse over the nuclear deal shows, any such bold initiative will have to face not only dogmatic objections, but also the nervousness of the small parties about the response of the voters.
For instance, the Congress has had to back off from the idea of holding an early election because parties like the DMK and the RJD were unsure of their electoral prospects. Obviously, parties such as these are more concerned about winning the next election than about ending India's nuclear apartheid.
A single-party majority also has its dangers, such as the authoritarianism of the Congress and the anti-minority majoritarianism of the BJP. But the immaturity and irresponsibility of the regional parties make them act as impediments to India's development.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com)