There is a strange happening that could lead to a major impact on the Lok Sabha election results, if it continues to crystallise. Federalism is asserting itself, after several decades really, where the Opposition parties are hammering home the central threat to state independence. And the point here is that the campaign is working, and the people seem to be mobilising to protect the federal independence guaranteed to the states under the Constitution of India.

This threat seems to be overtaking communalism and corruption insofar as the voting masses of India are concerned. And is matched only by joblessness and price rise, with both being effectively linked to rising centralism in the Opposition campaign that is making waves insofar as the battle of perceptions is concerned.

Federalism had become an issue in 1989-1990 when the National Front conglomeration of the regional parties came to power at the centre. Corruption was an issue but this was part of rising antagonism against the Congress party’s centralised rule with ex-Congressman V.P.Singh in the lead of this particular campaign. Although this government was short-lived, the anti-Congress sentiment continued for a while with the United Front– a similar conglomeration by another name– coming into power again a few years later in Delhi.

This time around a similar sentiment is on the uprise, but with more reason. Bits and pieces of the jigsaw puzzle strewn around by the Opposition over the past year in particular are coming together, creating an undercurrent in some states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh that is very visible in a few others like Tamil Nadu and Punjab. The decision by southern Chief Ministers to hold a dharna in protest against the Centre’s refusal to release funds for the Opposition ruled states in Delhi has clearly fed into this undercurrent, as shrewd leaders like the Ksrala and Karnataka Chief Ministers effectively linked the paucity of funds to growing unemployment.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi does not seem to have realised this, and is continuing with his Hindu-Muslim rhetoric along with targeted attacks on the regional leaders. The Citizen is carrying a story outlining how his attack on Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar has fallen foul of the people of Maharashtra, whose response seems to be rally around the Nationalist Congress Party leader against the Delhi assault. Both the NCP and former Chief Minister of Maharashtra Udhav Thackeray have doubled down on this, campaigning against what they call an attack on Maratha pride, and on Maharashtra itself.

Interestingly, the campaign is not laced with hate or abuse against ‘outsiders’ as has been seen decades ago in Maharashtra but against the central government for stifling regional aspirations. Reports coming in from all over India point to a similar campaign by the regional parties, a ‘beware of the BJP and PM Modi, they will finish us’ sentiment that is igniting response and support. To what extent will be evident when the votes are counted, but it is certainly cutting into the communal campaign that has been unleashed by Narendra Modi personally in this Lok Sabha election. Clearly the threat to federalism remains a major issue with the people of India with indications that the masses might rally around the local parties in this general election.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has taken the campaign against the centre to levels where she is managing to control what many had projected as the rise of the BJP in West Bengal. She has been warning the people of the subjugation of the Bengali identity. As has the Tamil Nadu chief minister Stalin, and the Karnataka duo of Siddaramaiah and Shiv Kumar in Karnataka. The Opposition campaign in the South revolves around state pride; imposition of Hindi and culture by an increasingly autocratic Delhi; and warnings that freedoms are in peril.

In the north West Bengal is joined by Punjab at the western end where the BJP candidates are already in bad odour. Federalism is the theme here as well, with issues of identity and culture being raised by all the opposition parties in the fray. This is one of the major reasons why the Akali Dal decided to part ways with the BJP at least post polls, and carry on an independent campaign for the votes.

There is a simmering undercurrent being detected by political observers in the northern states as well, despite the Ram Mandir and anti-Muslim campaign underway. The agrarian issue has seeped into the rural hinterland of both Punjab and Haryana where BJP leaders are being blocked from entering their constituencies at different points by the angry farmers. Western UP has also seen some such protests.

The Congress party that has read the people’s mood right for a change, has dropped the electoral bonds and corruption issue and replaced it with joblessness and the ‘BJP will change the Constitution if it comes to power again’ campaign. Unemployment has impacted on the youth in the north, but interesting the campaign on the Constitution has created a stir amongst sections of the Dalits and the underprivileged who see in this a possible attempt to get rid of their reservation quota. To what extent this campaign mobilises the significant Dalit population in the Hindi speaking states remains to be seen, but the very fact that it is being received well is significant in itself.

As the election proceeds, the campaigns too are being tweaked by the politicians. And the regional parties are increasingly focusing on federalism, and the damage that an autocratic centre can do to their cultures and identities. On the other side the BJP under the leadership of the Prime Minister is playing on divisive politics, with a direct attack by name on the Muslims.

Federalism had won against communalism in the 1990’s, despite the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992. It now remains to be seen whether the more concerted and sharper and more targeted attack on the states and their leaders by the ruling party at the centre will rally the people to defend their regional interest and in the process the Constitution of India. Or whether at the end of the day communalism will have its way, and the same rhetoric of hate and assault will get another lease of life.