Thursday, March 23rd, 2023 14:53:44

India’s Party System Emerging Trajectories

Updated: August 31, 2013 2:53 pm

The journey of the Indian party system since independence with the Congress towering not only as the dominant party, but also as the crucible of the party system, to the present multi-party system characterised by complex coalition making could come about with over six decades of splintering on issues ranging from ideological differences to leadership ambitions and political expediency


Clearly, the two general elections (2004 and 2009) and 61 elections to the Legislative Assemblies of various states in the first decade of twenty-first century have brought greater competitive dynamism in the party system in the country. The dynamism is not restricted merely to conjuring up the magical number in the Lok Sabha to rule the country. That indeed is the larger, or perhaps the ultimate, striving for each party. However, with coalitions becoming the norm at the national level now and in the foreseeable future, state level base too has acquired significance. Though there is a lack of data and information on political stakes for 238,998 gram panchayats across the country, their dynamics too must not be ignored in India’s party politics. The dynamics, which emerged from fifteen Lok Sabha elections and 313 Legislative Assembly elections till 2010, also affects institutions, which in turn influence the establishment, political operations and institutional dimensions of the country’s party systems.

Contextualizing the Indian Party System

Historically, the emergence of India’s party system owes itself to two processes—the interaction of parties, the factions and groups within and leaders amongst themselves as they interacted with the colonial government. As the Indian National Congress acquired the character of a political party while leading India’s national movement waging the struggle for independence against British colonialism, it had to interact and negotiate with All India Muslim League on rival demands of nationalism and nationhood based on religious ethnicity, which brought in contestations on anti-colonial political strategies, nationalism and nationhood. Second, the INC, which developed as a platform for Indian nationalism, encompassed within it various shades of opinions, so intense that could spark ideological debates, dissensions and splits. No wonder, if the moderate-extremist divergence, consequent split and merger (1906 and 1916) were the first evidence of intra-organisation elements of a party system in the INC, the formation of Swaraj Party (1922), eventual return of its members to the parent party, the expulsion of Subhash Chandra Bose (1939) from the INC and his forming All India Forward Block, the formation of the caucus Congress Socialist Party (1934) and the exit of the socialists from the Congress due to opposition from the Patel group (1945) all reflected sprouting, existence and eventual departure of divergent views within the INC, which had the characteristics of a party system within the Congress party. Principled and ideological differences and divergence of political methods played a role during this period, but dissidence as a political phenomenon did not emerge at that stage.

The post-independence party system too deserves a look from the perspective of the dynamics of relationships amongst the parties. Indeed, the INC emerged as the epochal party as India awoke to ‘life and freedom’, but the party, as suggested, was also a party system in every sense of the word. No other party in India has seen so many splits and mergers since the beginning of the twentieth century, which continues to date. Even more significant is to note that some of the main parties contesting in the first general elections in 1951-52 had come out of it around or after independence. SP, which had to leave the Congress in 1945, and the KMPP (1951) were the two main parties on the opposition plank and were the best performers after the CPI. BJS cannot precisely be called an off-shoot of the Congress, but its founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee formed the party after leaving the first post-independence cabinet, had his political beginnings with the Congress and had a strong link with it that brought him as an important minister in the first post-independence government that was in its composition and character a national government. Also, the party’s initial strength too was based on the support it received from the RSS, a ‘cultural’ Hindu organisation that was founded by a medical doctor Keshav Baliram Hegdewar, who was an active member of the INC from 1916 to 1924, in Nagpur in 1925 (Baxter 1969: 6-30). This period was high on ideological or principled policy differences; dissidence as a political phenomenon and strategy had not emerged.

Significantly, by the year 1951, a year after the new Constitution was put into effect and the time when preparations for the first general elections were on, four major groups of parties had emerged in the Indian political arena. One group ‘more or less accepted the basic democratic, secular state provided for in the Constitution’. The Congress, the parties that came out of it, like the Socialist Party, the KMPP, and several small state parties, formed part of this group. The CPI and various Marxist parties that rejected the western model parliamentary democracy and advocated the Soviet or the Chinese model formed another group. A third group consisted of the Hindu parties like the BJS, the Hindu Mahasabha, Ram Rajya Parishad and so on. A fourth group of parties were indifferent to the constitutional framework and concentrated on parochial or regional demands. They included the Akali Dal, the Scheduled Caste Federation, the Jharkhand Party, the Tamilnad Congress and such other regional groups. It is also worth noting here that whatever their relative strength, regional parties emerged virtually at the outset of the electoral competition.

Comprehending the Trends

The journey of the Indian party system since independence with the Congress towering not only as the dominant party, but also as the crucible of the party system, to the present multi-party system characterised by complex coalition making could come about with over six decades of splintering on issues ranging from ideological differences to leadership ambitions and political expediency. Table 1 (on page 24), though not comprehensive enough, is indicative of splits and mergers that have taken place in the Congress in six and a half decades since 1945; it records 113. This table could have missed a few splits and mergers, it nonetheless is indicative. It does not take into account several splits and mergers in other parties and at the state level, particularly those that took place during the coalition era of 1967-69 and in north-eastern states (Nag 2003). Since the table is only about splits and mergers in the Congress, it also does not take into account various parties such as TDP, BSP and several others at the sub-state level that were established independent of the Congress system—the ones that could be labeled as original parties—and splits and mergers within them.

The table (on page 24) takes into account splits and mergers in the party since the formation of the Socialist Party in 1945. But from the Surat session of the Congress in 1907, when the famous split between the moderates and the extremists took place and when their eventual merger came about in 1916, the Congress as the crucible of Indian politics and the party system thrived on splits and mergers. The Swaraj Party experiment (1922), Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, a former PCC President, forming the RSS in 1925 that 25 years later became the base for the BJS, forming of the Congress Socialist Party in 1935, Subhash Chandra Bose forming All India Forward Bloc in 1939 after Tripuri Congress were all part of the process through which the Indian party system has evolved. The Socialists eventually had to leave to form their own party in 1945. We must factor in their splits and mergers in the growth of the party system in India. If J.B. Kriplani left the Congress to form KMPP in 1951, its merger with the Socialist Party created Praja Socialist Party and the saga of splits and mergers continued into the 1960s. C. Rajagopalachari’s two forays in 1956 and 1959 out of the Congress were indicative of the fission process due to ideological and personality issues. The eight entries for the 1960s appear under recorded as there were more breakaways from the Congress. However, it buttresses my argument of the alternative space sprouting after the fourth general election. Shrinkage of this space again in the 1970s is due to the emergence of Indira Gandhi with new hopes, the emergency, and the consolidation of the opposition parties in 1977. Yet, three splits indicated are significant—Jagjivan Ram’s strategic distancing from Indira Gandhi, the vertical split in 1978 and the formation of the Kerala Congress. Except for Sharad Pawar’s departure and return in 1981, indicating individual ambitions, there is nothing much in the 1980s. More than one breaks per year in the 1990s (13) indicate post-Nehru-Gandhi turmoil in the party, In fact, most of these were during the transition period when Narasimha Rao left, Sitaram Kesari was at the helm and Nehru-Gandhi group was asserting, Sonia Gandhi’s entry into the party—she enrolled as a primary member of the party in 1997—was being manoeuvered in order to re-establish the control of the family. Important leaders got disenchanted in eleven states—Narayan Dutt Tiwari, Arjun Singh, S. Bangarappa, G.K. Moopanar, P. Chidambaram, Madhav Rao Scindia, Mamata Banerjee, Sharad Pawar and P.A. Sangma, et al—indicating organisational uncertainties, though except Mamata Banerjee and the Sharad Pawar’s NCP group, most returned back. Twenty four breaks in the first decade of the new millennium, thirteen in 2007 alone, though only K. Karunakaran, P.C. George and A.K. Antony (all from Kerala) in this group were leaders with mass following, brings the attention on organisational aspects of political parties in India, not just of the Congress.

The contents of this table as well as conclusion that flow from it nevertheless establish a peculiar dynamism in the Indian party system reflective of political ebullience of its own. Indeed, it is neither easy to characterise this uniqueness as a positive, nor as a negative trait for the overall party system, or for the polity. The splits and mergers reflected in India’s once dominant and even now the most prominent political party nonetheless mirror spill-over of unfulfilled leadership ambitions as well as organisational deficiencies that disallow sufficient space to differing, if not dissenting, points of view. Obviously, inner party democracy within Indian parties deserves interrogation. Though there is something in the Congress culture that brings back some of the dissenters, the ‘catch-all’ platform of the national movement kind has been shrinking by the decade and very sharply since the 1970s and increasingly ideology has had very little to do with this political contraction. Whether or not this is a positive trend and what actually are its impact would be a matter of independent research. This trend, however, is a point for reflection for political parties and their leadership from organisational perspective, question of categorisation of parties in India. Obviously, the following ECI data is based on its own categorization. This categorisation is not regarded as fool proof, but is widely used as accepted official version since the ECI data is organised around it. Other categorisations such as polity wide parties, state parties, and two state parties have been used for a more nuanced analysis, which have their merit too, but the use of the ECI data can best be done in accordance with its own classification.

The arguments flowing from the analysis of Table 1 are further supported by the ECI data on political parties. From 53 political parties—national and state—and 533 independents in 1951, 363 parties and 3831 independents took part in 2009. Due to the growing number of parties, obviously most of them new, the ECI introduced in 1962, a new criterion of unrecognised but registered parties. The seven-fold increase in parties, irrespective of the categories, and independent candidates indicate both dynamism as well as fragmentation. The figures also indicate that the number of national parties has not gone up substantially; it has stabilised on the ECI criterion. The number of state parties has gone up since 1962, rising since 1989, when the Congress dominance virtually ended and the era of coalition politics in Indian began. The fourteenth general election in 2004, witnessed a maximum of 51 state parties contesting. The steep rise in the number of unrecognised registered parties too. And, the number of independent candidates too swelled during this period, rising to a maximum of 10,636 in 1996. This stability and rise indicates two things. First, the era of the Congress decline and the advent of the coalition politics have created dissent, defection, splits and party fragmentation; even rebellion by individuals who contested as independent candidates. Second, amidst fragmentation there is stabilisation too, which we will see in further discussion.

These trends reveal more if we look at the per centage of votes by each category of contestants (Table 3). Despite the changing category of some of the parties, not only have the national parties stabilised their voting per centage at around two-thirds level, the state parties’ increasing electoral success since 1996 plateauised in 2009. The per centage of votes secured by independent candidates in 2009 was the highest so far, which as indicated in the foregoing discussion, is an indicator of growing political aspirations of active participants in the political process that parties are unable to accommodate. It is also an indicator of ogranisational schisms, perhaps institutional deficits, where dissent grows on seat allocations and mechanisms of resolution are weak in party organisations.

However, not all the national parties have national reach. The implication of this fact gets further buttressed with the result of the fifteenth general elections in 2009. Of the four alliances in the poll fray only two could make their presence felt. Similarly, state parties show a rising trend between 1996 and 2004, but appear to saturate and get plateauised by 2009. The unrecognised registered parties generally show a rise, but after a record high in 1991 and 1996, decline. Indeed, those five years were a period with political fluidity. In fact, the rise in registered unrecognised parties as well as in the number of independent candidates should be read as increase in dissidence/rebellion.

Since there is agreement amongst analysts that Indian politics, and hence the party system, has entered an era of coalition politics, and we too have formulated that now coalition making is along two axes or nodes, it is necessary to look at the basis of the coalition making by looking at national and state parties. Between 1989 (ninth Lok Sabha) and 2009 (fifteenth Lok Sabha) the national parties conceded twenty per cent seats and seventeen per cent votes to the regional/ state parties in the Lok Sabha. Another significant point that deserves flagging in the context of the analysis attempted here is that regional/ state character of a party could be considered either in pure geographical context, or in contexts of ideology/orientation/programme too. The EC classification that we have used in this study is geographic-vote share based. However, since many ‘regional parties’ have emerged due basically to fragmentation of the ‘national parties’, many of them not only aspired to be a national party, but also continued to maintain a national programmatic content despite slipping in the EC’s geographic-vote share criteria. Such parties are unlikely to push a regional state-based agenda if part of a coalition arrangement.

The analysis of the data in the above two tables indicate six significant trends. First, the national parties, which have varied between nine in 1991 to seven in 2009 by the EC definition, have retained two-thirds and more of the seats in the Lok Sabha for three consecutive elections (1998, 1999 and 2004), conceding to the state parties only six seats between 1999 and 2004, which can be attributed to variable political conditions in some of the States. Second, even if we do not over-emphasise the strength of the national parties to take on the increasing strength of the state/regional parties, the question arises whether the state/regional parties, which leapfrogged from 8.6 per cent of the Lok Sabha seats in 1989 (9.5 per cent in 1991) to 31 per cent in 2004 (through 24 per cent in 1996, 27.6 per cent in 1998 and 30 per cent in 1999) have reached the limits of their capacity. There is corresponding shift in per centage of votes of the two levels of parties in the Indian political system (see Table 4 on page 29). Of course, we will have to factor in both the slipping down of some national parties to the regional status and upgradation or graduation of some of them to the national level. Third, the two major national parties—the Congress and the BJP—have retained close to four-fifths of the Lok Sabha seats during the past four general elections. Fourth, some of the state/regional parties, such as SP, DMK/AIADMK, RJD, JD (U), TDP, BJD, SAD and so on, are capable of doing better than national parties in their respective realms. Fifth, nearly one-third of the Lok Sabha seats (150, 168, 174, 167 to be precise in 1998, 1999, 2004 and 2009 respectively) have been distributed amongst independents and thirty two regional/state parties. In 2004, twenty nine of them did not reach double figures and thirteen of them have only one seat, four managed two each and three managed only three each. In 2009, sixteen state parties remained in single digit and six got only one seat. Of the unrecognised parties, except RLD (4), the rest got only one seat. Clearly, except for the highly concentrated and entrenched state parties such as DMK/AIADMK, TDP, SP, SS, JD (S), JD (U), RJD, and so on, most state parties appear to have limited support base and their electoral performance too is unstable and variable. One of the issues to be examined, therefore, will be whether they, particularly the smaller ones, enjoy influence disproportionate to their presence in the Lok Sabha. It is significant to recall that the NDA lost power by a solitary vote in 1999, leading to a mid-term general election just a year after the BJP-led NDA ascended power in New Delhi in 1998. Sixth, longevity of most of the state parties, and we are talking here of the EC recognised parties and not of the registered parties that are not recognized, is rather short. Finally, between 1989 and 2009, only four political parties continued to be qualified as a national parties. Though CPI is a borderline case now and the future of the CPM after their loss in West Bengal Legislative Assembly is still to be fully comprehended.

The question that deserves notice in charting the emerging trajectory of India’s party system is whether all the parties contesting for power since 1951, particularly the national parties, were really in the reckoning and contested for the ‘alternative space’.

Table 5 indicates that except for the Congress all along, only BLD (JNP) in 1977 , JNP in 1980, JD in 1989 and BJP since 1991 have actually had any real, or realistic, stakes in national power on their own. Clearly, most parties did not compete for the alternative space in Indian politics. When the alternative space emerged, it created an unexpected optimism and there was a quick huddling together before coalition culture began evolving. BSP did contest 500 seats in 2009, but it was never considered to have any chance by any analyst, because despite all the efforts, it continues to be a one state party (UP) that nurtures a national dream. Of course, party supremo Mayawati cleverly strategised contesting 500 seats in order to create an impression of being a national party as well as to increase the per centage of votes. It is difficult to surmise a long term political strategy of the ‘national’ parties in contesting the Lok Sabha elections without a nationwide organisational structure and sufficient number of candidates in the elections. Of course, Mayawati’s strategy of setting up 500 candidates in general election 2009 without any national party organisation and the gains for her party deserves scrutiny. Indeed, the opposition was effective and constructive for the first two decades of India’s electoral politics. A pre-poll or post-poll coalition was not attempted at the national level before 1977. The implication of the data below is that most parties still lack a critical mass for national stake or claim the alternative space. Clearly, the coalition era is here to stay in India for some time to come.

The points made earlier are further elaborated and buttressed by Table 6. First, seats contested by national parties have increased at, what could be described as, ‘critical’ turning points in India’s electoral as well as party politics—1967, 1980, 1991, 1998 and 2009. The decline in 1977 is perhaps indicative of consolidation of parties under the Janata Party umbrella. Second, contestations from the states/regions/peripheries have significantly increased. Third, the category of independent shows that during transitory and/or unstable periods the parties have failed to satisfy the aspirants for political spoils within.


While a presumptuous and seemingly resurgent Congress continues to be at cross purpose with its UPA allies, the BJP in relative decline, despite ruling six states (Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh and Karnataka) and sharing power in two states (Bihar and Jharkhand), is looking to assert and highlight its independent identity. The Congress in its second stint as a coalition leader has faced problems with allies and organisational structure. It is facing problems in its bastions, such as Andhra Pradesh. The BJP got a new President selected by the RSS, who is attempting an organisational regeneration, recent assertive rebuttal to the Shiv Sena’s Marathi Manoos campaign appears an attempt to rediscover itself on ethnic and regional issues vis-à-vis its allies. For the Hindutva party there are subterranean issues in Bihar. Odisha gone awry is another case for a relook at strategies. The Left parties have been playing their role in Indian polity from three bastions they created since the mid-1970s. But after losing power in West Bengal 2011, where they ruled without a break since 1977 and with Kerala and Tripura being not as certain because there has been alteration of power in these two states, it is under strain.

The fifteenth general elections held in April-May 2009 and some of the developments within various parties, however, indicating emergence of political trajectories that necessitate a nuanced look at the ‘binodal’ theorisation. Certain trends need highlighting. First, despite innumerable failures, including in 2009 general elections, the idea of a Third Front lives, though with uncertainties. The Left, despite being on a shaky ground, still appears optimistic about it and the parties averse to the BJP, but wary of the Congress’s domineering and resurgent politics, are willing to experiment. The Fourth Front emerged as another phenomenon, which received the voters’ jolt, but has not ended. Obviously, a ground for experimenting with political alternatives exists.

A significant factor in the emerging trajectories is coalition management and cohabitation. Past two decades of coalition politics at the national level shows a fluid coalescence, with ideology receding on the margins to be used conveniently. With all the parties in the system facing generational transition amidst organisational petrifaction, coalescence will continue to be based on fruits of power, while power sharing will continue to be contentious. The state/regional parties are plateauing on a reclining surface. Naturally, coalition making could witness fresh posturing and strategising with new bargains.

The Indian party system thus still has several emerging trends that deserve a more cautious study.

(This piece is an abridged version of the essay in the Author’s edited volume “Party System in India: Emerging Trajectories” that has just been published by Lancer)

By Ajay K Mehra

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