Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Aug 15, 2022 Updated 28 Days ago
The diversity of India's political set up means that no electoral majority is cast in stone and no ideological hegemony can enjoy the permanence.
Indian democracy and the changing political landscape

This piece is part of the series,  India @75: Assessing Key Institutions of Indian Democracy.


It is common knowledge that Indian democracy is undergoing a fundamental transformation. This has been marked by several changes including systemic ones in the nature of electoral competition, a multi-fold increase in the size of the middle class, penetration of social media, and the withering away of old hierarchies, amongst others.  The social and geographical expansion of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since 2014, has altered the political landscape resulting in further marginalisation of the Congress, the decimation of the Left Front, and the decline in the strength of state-level parties. The BJP has made significant gains across the board, which has lessened the differences between various voting blocs curated in the past along with other social cleavages. Similarly, state-level specificities that dominated the discourse in the previous two decades, now have somewhat diminished status in electoral analyses, especially to understand the contours of national politics.

The BJP has made significant gains across the board, which has lessened the differences between various voting blocs curated in the past along with other social cleavages.

As India celebrates 75 years of independence, we assess the role of political parties in shaping the country’s democracy in this rapidly changing political landscape. Modern democracies are unimaginable without the political parties as they serve as the nerve centre linking citizens and the State in three critical domains—as channels of voicing individual grievances, vehicles of political ambitions, and platforms for interest groups to forge political settlements.

The evolution of the Party System in India

Political parties do have their own organisational life, but they are also nested in party systems. They are components or ‘parts’ of the system, and therefore, changes in the system naturally have repercussions on the parts. It is agreed that the party system in India has seen at least four transformations since the very inception. In the first-party system (1952-67), the Congress was the predominant party winning both at the national level and in most states, overshadowing other parties, thus famously described as the ‘Congress system’. The next phase was marked by the emergence of Opposition against the Congress party in several states, resulting in the polarisation of state party systems (1967-89). While the Congress continued to win nationally, the non-Congress opposition parties started winning larger proportion of seat and vote shares.

The current party system began with the formation of a single-party majority of the BJP in 2014. With a consecutive victory in 2019 and the party’s increasing presence, it was clear that India has entered in its second-dominant party system phase anchored around the BJP.

The third phase marked the beginning of the post-Congress polity—a competitive multi-party system (1989-2014) in which the Congress was no longer the dominant player nationally. The period witnessed the formation of coalition governments at the national level since no party could get a majority on its own. State-based parties acquired a greater voice both in the states and at the national level in this phase. The current party system began with the formation of a single-party majority of the BJP in 2014. With a consecutive victory in 2019 and the party’s increasing presence, it was clear that India has entered in its second-dominant party system phase anchored around the BJP. The median seems to have shifted so far towards the right that even the Opposition is either mute or coloured in strategy and tactics.

Key aspects shaping India’s party system

What is the ideological framework on which electoral contests in India are mounted? And how has contestation over “ideas of India” shaped the country’s political parties, party system, and democracy? Five broad trends could be observed:

  1. India’s party politics is deeply ideological and divisions on the appropriate role of the state have influenced the changes in the Indian party system since independence. The different ideas on whether the state should intervene in social norms, and whether it should provide special treatment to the disadvantaged groups, have long historic lineages including shaping the toner and tenor of the freedom movement in the first-half of the 20th century.
  2. The movement of political parties in the ideological space marked the transition from the Congress-dominant system to a multi-party competition, and now to BJP’s one-party dominance These transitions had far-reaching consequences, including but not limited to greater representation in the political composition of the Parliament and state assemblies—more rural and backward castes. In some ways, Indian politics has become more representative of its social structures than ever before. Ironically, this period is also marked by a decline in norms and functioning of legislative institutions.
  3. The current success of the BJP in this long historical battle is due to its ability to consolidate those on the ‘right’, i.e., citizens who do not want the state intervention in social norms; redistribution of property; special recognition of social groups including religious minorities. It also includes those who equate democracy with majoritarian values. The Congress party which led India’s freedom movement and governed for almost three-fourths of the last 75 years is increasingly becoming marginalised. The party’s social base as well as its ideological umbrella is getting narrower. Thus, the emerging structure of the political competition indicates that BJP is likely to have little opposition at the national level in the short-run, though it may continue to face challenges at the state level.
  4. India has witnessed at least five waves of party formation: Pre-independence and four party system phases. The process of formation of political parties in India remains easy and thus dozens (if not hundreds) of parties enter the system every year, but very few survive beyond two electoral cycles. The minor parties often merge themselves with bigger parties, or fade away. Despite high-levels of aggregate electoral volatility, the political labels are fairly stable, and the party brand matters. Very few candidates manage to win elections as independents. Similarly, a large number of these parties do resemble each other in their organisational structure, functioning, and mobilisational rhetoric—most parties have become centralised in decision-making and promoting candidates with huge resource base or political legacy. The centralisation of political parties are leading to serious consequences on the Indian democracy as they are unable to respond to societal grievances which are spillingover in form of non-party street mobilisation. Similarly, Indian parties are failing in their tasks as vehicles of political mobility. Rather than being broad-based interest group coalitions, most parties are also becoming more sectional or narrow in their representational characteristics. Notwithstanding this degeneration within most political parties, they continue to serve some core purposes very well.
  5. Finally, the fragmentation of opposition space and the dominance of the BJP may shift the political power to a more conservative and vernacular elite in the coming years. This shift is likely to deepen ideological fissures, making the debates on social norms and liberal values a contested space for the foreseeable future. Though the procedural aspects of democracy such as regular elections will not be threatened, but more expansive notions of democracy may take a hit. And it is in this aspect that the role of political parties in re-imagining India’s democratic space will become even more crucial.

India’s political parties act as platform for these societal forces, with a modest record—succeeding in some arenas while failing in others.

Parties and democratic deepening

How must one understand the emerging contradictions in our polity: a robust competitive polity with state-level parties winning important assembly elections and active citizenry protesting on the streets, along with an ideological hegemony of the BJP? And, how should we explain the paradox that on one hand most political parties in India are decaying as organsations and showing centralising tendencies, yet playing crucial role in producing democratic outcomes such as representation of marginalised groups?

That the Indian democracy is sui generis. It is as much a by-product of institutional design as it is an accidental outcome of contradictory forces rooted in society. India’s political parties act as platform for these societal forces, with a modest record—succeeding in some arenas while failing in others. Their agility and adaptability have kept everyday politics energised. The routinisation of politics and entrepreneurial spirit of India’s politicians will act as a safety valve against any form of political culture acquiring hegemonic status. Furthermore, the civilizational diversity of India means that no electoral majority is cast in stone and no ideological hegemony can enjoy permanence. The continuous churn in India's diverse set-up will continue to produce opposing tendencies and ensure the democratic balance of our system.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.

Contributor

Rahul Verma

Rahul Verma

Rahul Verma is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) and visiting assistant professor of political science at Ashoka University. His research interests ...

Read More +