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After The 2014 General Election Politics, Parties And Party System

Updated: November 29, 2014 4:30 am

The party system over the past quarter of a century has witnessed frittering away of advantage and credibility by the centre-of-left parties (the socialists, various shades of the Janata Party/Dal), the emergence of state/regional/small parties, the emergence of parties with caste and religious identity tags and the development and growth of coalition politics. The advent of coalition politics witnessed the party system at the national and many a state levels neatly arrayed into two blocs of alliances at beginning of the millennium, to be theorised as bi-nodal and/or bi-polar

The party system in India, which has been reconfiguring itself since the tumble of the Rajiv Gandhi-led Indian National Congress (Congress) from 404 (78.6 per cent and three-fourths) seats in 1984 to 194 (37.24 per cent) seats in 1989 in the Lok Sabha, still appears undergoing the process despite Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the first time attaining absolute majority in the Lok Sabha with 282 seats (52 per cent). Janata Party that signaled alternation of power for the first at the national level and created an illusion of an emerging two party system in the country with two centrist parties at the two ends of the continuum despite the Bharatiya Jan Sangh as a constituent, was turned out to be a coalition with a serious cohabitation problems. While the Congress has not yet recovered from that slip from the top 25 years ago being reduced to 44 seats, the lowest-ever voting per centage (19.1) and its first two-digit tally in the Lok Sabha since independence, the party that could barely get two seats in the first general election it faced in its reincarnation as the BJP in 1980, appears to be undergoing internal metamorphosis following an absolute-majority-government and run of success in state assembly elections. How do we characterize this party system and what does it hold for the future of Indian politics?

The BJP has developed power stakes in seventeen states over the years. At present, having captured the Raisina Hill without the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) partners, it is governing five states without an alliance. It has won Haryana and Maharashtra (simple majority) recently. It is an alliance partner in three states and the main opposition party in seven states. It has made forays in southern states too, which the party itself described as ‘its soft belly’ till the early 1990s. Obviously, beginning virtually as an anathema in India’s centre-left politics since 1951 as the BJS, the party has endured to become acceptable first as a coalition partner to even the Left and the Socialists to keep the Congress out of power after the fourth general election in 1967. Second, it joined the JP movement during 1974-75 with other parties. By joining the anti-Congress front during the post-emergency 1977 general election and becoming a ‘constituent’ of the Janata Party, the BJS sought to shed its rightist past and the Hindu chauvinist tag, but the issue of dual membership (of the party and the RSS) led to a split in the Janata Party, compelling the BJS constituent walk out of the Janata Party after the 1980 general election.


In its quest for larger legitimacy, in its BJP reincarnation, the party declared ‘Gandhian Socialism’ as its defining ideology, which was meant to carry further its three year old Janata Party legacy in name (Janata), borrowing from the legacy of the national movement (Gandhian) and in post-independence public rhetoric (socialism). However, after the drubbing in 1984 general election, it abandoned its pretensions and latched on to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s belligerently divisive Ayodhya campaign, with significant political gains within a decade and four general elections. The party consolidated in over half a dozen states as either the ruling party or the second party since the 1990s in the next two decades. This allowed the party to sustain a decade of loss at the Centre, as the states it ruled turned out good governance performance and helped the party’s financial sustenance too. Interestingly, this period also witnessed the locus of power shifting in the party from the national leaders sustaining at the ‘support’ of the state leaders to an assertive state chief minister. Ascendance of Narendra Modi reflects that trend.

The Congress could not consolidate on its 2004 surprise return to power, which was not a victory of the party, but due to a complex of factors. In September 1998 in its Panchmarhi declaration, the Congress accepted coalition politics as a short-term strategy to return to power, not as a solution to its declining votes, but it could not build a spirit of coalition and cooperation with its alliance partners. In fact, if at all, the relations of the party with most coalition partners were tense most of the time. Trust on both ends always remained on the low ebb. During the one decade that it was in power as the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) leader, it did not make a substantial addition to its vote share in the Parliamentary elections; neither could it improve its performance in states. While it lost a grip over Tamilnadu (1967), Karnataka (since 1983) and Andhra Pradesh (since 1983, except for the period that YS Rajasekhara Reddy brought the party back in 2004) in south, its hold over Maharashtra also weakened.

Thus, at the beginning of the sixteenth general election in 2014, the Congress was in power on its own in ten states and in alliance in Maharashtra, after the latest elections in Maharashtra and Haryana, it has lost both these states. The Congress has been unable to unsettle the BJP in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh which built and consolidated itself steadily in these states since the late 1990s focusing on better governance and make any dent in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha in the past couple of decades. In most states it suffers from organisational and leadership crises, which became too apparent when following the sudden death of YSR in Andhra Pradesh, it lost control over the state politics and the party had no mechanism to resolve the internal struggles in the state unit. Organisational and leadership initiatives have been casualties due to lack of autonomy at any level across the country in the party. Smaller ethnic and regional parties with identifiable leaders capable of micromanaging votes to construct local majorities ate into its social base. Beyond anti-incumbency, this loss of the Congress reflects that despite governing India for 55 of its 67 years since independence, it is failing to reflect the changing profile of the Indian electorate. This change is ironically a consequence of the growth unleashed by Congress’ own reforms during 1991-1996 and under the first UPA government.


Also, the party system over the past quarter of a century has witnessed frittering away of advantage and credibility by the centre-of-left parties (the socialists, various shades of the Janata Party/Dal), the emergence of state/regional/small parties, the emergence of parties with caste and religious identity tags and the development and growth of coalition politics. In fact, state/regional/small parties have increased their space in the Lok Sabha from 15.4 per cent in 1989 to 37 per cent in 2014. The advent of coalition politics witnessed the party system at the national and many a state levels neatly arrayed into two blocs of alliances at beginning of the millennium, to be theorized as bi-nodal and/or bi-polar. The Congress and the BJP emerged as the two axes of coalition making at the national and some of the state levels, albeit they accepted a subsidiary position in some of the states to a local leader and party. Indeed, the BJP was more adaptable in this coalition game than the Congress, which has been too conscious of its past glory as the ‘dominant party’ to accept a subsidiary role and was involved in avoidable tiff and tussle with allies. The BJP, on the other hand, has had a much better record of nurturing coalitions since it did not have any baggage of the past dominance and had a stake in stabilizing and sustaining with coalition partners. This was reflected in the party insisting on continuing with its NDA coalition despite obtaining an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, though stresses have begun to surface with majoritarian its assertion.

The perspective of an emerging post-Congress polity has lately dominated the analyses of political parties in India. Since no party got an absolute majority between 1989 and 2009, the emerging coalition politics was seen as federalization of the party system. As the one-party dominant system moved to a multi-party competition, a stable political pattern gave way to fluidity as the principle of party competition, which became all too apparent during the fifteenth general election in 2009 when a Fourth Front too came into the fray. However, multipolarity did not take shape then, indicating perhaps that the party system in India was reaching its fragmentational and coalitional limits. This became clear in the sixteenth general election with the BJP becoming the first party to obtain an absolute majority in three decades, the questions that we need to look at is whether the binodality/bipolarity has ended, whether federalisation phase is over and whether the fluidity would give way to a more stable pattern? We attempt to figure this out by looking at the last seven election results and attempt a pattern through the classification of parties by the Election Commission of India (ECI).


A look at the way national and smaller parties have been situated between 1991 and 2014 (Table 1) with the prevalent classification indicates that though their combined votes declined from 67.5 per cent to 47.35 per cent in two decades, the two largest parties Congress and BJP obtained over 50 per cent votes and 40 per cent seats in the sixteenth Lok Sabha almost similar to the last election. If we disregard the claim of other smaller parties to technical status, rest of the parties have had nearly 50 per cent of the space in votes and 40 to 45 per cent of seats. In 2014, they have 35 per cent of votes and over 39 per cent seats, but a decline of the smaller parties with national status (other parties in the Table) is visible in 2014. Also, there has been a plateauing of state parties, in the ECI parlance, since 2004. Three significant facts: i) Cong+BJP’s combined strength is similar to the last election and they have consistently held 55-60 per cent LS seats since 1996; ii) Rest of the smaller parties have continued to retain 40 per cent space and 50 per cent votes, but for one party majority, they could have leveraged this for greater bargain; iii) The category of other parties, classified as national but small, have significantly shrunk, raising genuine question on their categorisation as national; iv) BJP’s majority in the same space with similar vote share that it has had with the Congress in earlier elections gives the extent of loss of the Congress to the BJP and other small parties.

Table 2 and 3 support our contention about a relook at the categorisation of parties and restricting the national party nomenclature for the time being only to the Congress and the BJP. These two tables show the variable nature of national and regional/state parties. While the number of such parties have varied between eight and six between 1989 and 2014, only four have been common. Some of them do not exist any longer. After 2014 election only three parties may remain national parties officially.

INC (Indian National Congress), BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), JD/JD(U) (Janata Dal-United), CPM (Communist Party of India-Marxist), CPI (Communist Party of India), BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party),

NCP (Nationalist Congress Party), RJD (Rashtriya Janata Dal), SAP (Samata Party), JD(S) (Janata Dal-Secular), JNP (Janata Party), ICS(SCS) {Indira Congress (Socialist-Sarat Chandra Sinha)}.

BSP, NCP and CPI entered the election as national parties according to the ECI definition but the BSP got 0 seats, NCP 6 and CPI 1. They are likely to lose their national party status.

Clearly, if we take the criteria either the ECI’s or of any other classification, the vote and seat space of the so called regional parties increased to one-third and has hovered around that. However, if we look at India’s party system as a multi-party system with multi-cornered contestation, then the two large (or national parties) appear surrounded with several small parties, some of which have multi-state presence, while most are restricted to one or two states.

Table 4 takes a look at how the Congress and BJP have been distributed since 1998, the year BJP came to power at the Centre. The Congress continued to be more densely occupying the Lok Sabha space across the country than the BJP till 2009, 2014 it has thinned, naturally having lost 162 seats to BJP and smaller parties. The BJP still has to travel some distance to be more evenly distributed across the nation.


A tentative putting together of the data given out by the ECI after 2014 general election creates a fascinating scenario of the emerging party system in India. First, the BJP has clearly replaced the Congress as the main dominant party and is expanding its base across the country. Yet, it still has miles to as nearly 90 per cent of its seats have come from the northern and western states that are its stronghold. It is not past vulnerability. Second, the Congress has very sharply lost its already shrinking space. It has reasons to worry and put the house in order. Third, the smaller parties, whether called national or state parties, still occupy nearly 50 per cent space, which is large and indicates the limitations of the two national parties. Fourth, those among smaller parties with a national tag such as the CPM and CPI have to reflect on their ideology, political organisation and popular imagination if they have to survive. Fifth, the base for coalition politics at the national level has weakened due to the BJP becoming uncoalationable due to its strength and the Congress losing attraction due to its weakness.

By Ajay K Mehra

The Author is a Director [Honorary], Centre for Public Affairs)

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