Sunday, 22 April 2012

Party System in Indian Polity

“Whom did you vote for?” If you’re an eligible voter then you know that you’ve been asked this question before and most of us would have retorted by taking the name of the corresponding political party. Seldom do we give precedence to the candidate over the party. Such is the impact of these political parties on the present day political system. They are indubitably an indispensable part of Indian politics.  
Party system in every country is a product not only of the prevailing form of government but also of its historical roots, cultural orientations, geographical compulsions and economic situation. “In developing countries, the political parties are expected to play an active entrepreneurial role in the formation of new ideas, in the establishment of a network of communication for those ideas and in the linking of the public and the leadership in such a way that power is generated, mobilized and directed.”

The contemporary party system in India has its roots in the era of freedom struggle and has been attributed to the framework of parliamentary government since 1950. 
Politics in India after independence is the politics of national reconstruction, the politics of modernization, the politics of integration, and the politics of development. Thus, party system was meant to play a role of a political instrument of socio-economic change to mobilize people for building awareness and enthusing people for nation building. 

Factors such as: India’s land with its great diversities, existence of a large number of religions, sects, linguistic blocks, ethnic groups, makes the party system unique. It does not easily fit into generally prescribed types of one-party, two-party, multi-party systems etc.

 Since independence the system has passed through various stages of growth:
1952-64-> the epoch of national consensus- the Nehru Era
1964-69-> the uneasy transition marked by emergence of a multi-party situation
1969-75-> the period of new consensus and of increasing inter-party conflict
1975-77-> the Emergency period
1977-80-> Janata phase of coalition politics
1980-89-> phase of tussle between the Congress at the centre and the regional parties in the states
Since 1989-> Multi party system and end of Congress hegemony. 

It is interesting to see the trend in electoral politics from 1977 to 1999 which directly affected the party system in India. 1977 was the first time ever that a party other than Congress was highly voted for. It raised hope for a ‘two-party system’ in the near future. 75.8 percent of votes were cast in the favor of only two parties namely Janata Party and the Congress. The result was that for the first time a non-congress party came into power at the centre. In 1980, one may say that Indian party system was back to one party dominant system with Congress winning 353 of the 529 seats. The parliamentary elections held in December 1989 clearly gave way to a multi-party system at the centre. For the first time, at least in formal sense, power was in the hands of a coalition government and the party system at the centre acquired a truly multi-party character as more than two parties were considered of significant relevance in the ninth Lok Sabha.
Let us take a brief look at the typology of Parties. On the basis of strength and areas of functioning there are three major types of parties viz. 
1. National parties: Generally present broad programs concerned with the social, economic and political welfare of the whole of India. The present National Parties are:
Indian National Congress- INC
Bahujan Samaj Party- BSP
Bharatiya Janata Party- BJP
Communist  Party of India- CPI
Communist party of India (Marxist)- CPI(M)
Nationalist Congress Party- NCP
2. Regional or State Parties: Represent the interests of particular linguistic, religious, regional , ethnic groups whose popularity maybe concentrated in an area as small as a single constituency or as large as an entire state or region. Some of particular importance are: 
Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab
AIADMK and DMK in Tamil Nadu
National Conference in Jammu & Kashmir
Telegu Dessam in Andhra Pradesh
Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh
3. Localised parties: These parties share the programmatic scope of some National Parties but without the latter’s range of popular support. Their influence is confined to a few constituencies and show little evidence of expansion. CPI(ML) can be one such example. “Till August 1999 there were 656 such unrecognized registered parties.”

There are more than 800 parties operating at different levels. Political scientists and thinkers for a long time have been critical of this growth in number of parties and have advocated the ‘two party system’ as a better alternative. But today if we look around from an unhooked perspective we find that there are many thriving democracies in the world with multiplicity of parties and succession of coalition governments. The problem with the Party system in India is not that of absence of ‘two party systems’ or presence of parties of various types and ideologies. The problem really is the lack of structural, organizational and procedural priorities. This is implicit during the election campaigns when the electorate gets to hear speeches of various politicians that are based on mere generic hypocrisies than on precise policy issues. There are prevalent allegations and counter allegations but scarcity of finding constructive alternatives to problems. Almost all parties just vaguely talk about development, national pride, secularism etc. Short term goals and personal interests of the elites in the coalition politics are given precedence over ideological commitment or long term objectives. 

The basic principle of party organization is not based on policies but on individualistic personalities or region. The substantial issues are almost common with all national parties and to some extent even with the state parties. This is a probable reason why party loyalties have been so fluidic in nature. In this regard, Dr. Shashi Tharoor suggests that there is scarcely a mainstream politician in India today who has not served under more than one party label. Power is a personal objective for the politicians and so the party manifesto under which they seek power is just a matter of convenience and not conviction. 

The irony is that in a democracy, there is hardly any party which is not under the rule of an autocratic leader. The constitutions of most parties are presidential and the committees are nominated by the president of the particular party. 
It is thus one of the major contradictions of Indian political parties that a democratic system is run by political parties which believe in undemocratic governing within their own circles.


INDIAN NATIONAL CONGRESS founded on December 27, 1885 at Bombay is the oldest political party in the whole of developing world of Afro-Asian countries and to a great extent Congress party is also the birth and generation place of almost all other parties of India. Right from its founding it started developing into a national movement opposing the British colonial administration. Congress of the pre independence India was the ‘nationalist movement’ before organizing itself into a new party after independence.

Avadi Session, 1956- Congress proclaimed its commitment to democratic socialism as the means for encouraging economic and social development. 
In January 1959, Nagpur session- Congress unanimously approved agricultural program that called for the immediate transformation of the agrarian structure. 
In the 68th session January 1969 in Bhubaneswar Congress accepted ‘Socialist State’ based on Parliamentary democracy as its aim.
Congress abolished Privy Purses and privileges of the Princes, nationalized several important sectors including general insurance and finally the slogan of “Garibi Hatao” in 1971 elections. 
Congress in its 1980 election manifesto made due claims to socialist commitments and transformation. 
In 1984 it deviated from its earlier ‘Garibi Hatao’ and ‘Socialism’ stance and the new manifesto promised to ensure “Unity and Integrity” of the country and provide the nation a “Clean Government”. It reiterated the commitment to the strategy of giving priority to the public sector in stepping up industrialization and modernization. 
The resolution at Congress centenary celebrations at Bombay in December 1985 reiterated the emphasis on liberalization of economy. It again took shelter of ‘Socialism’ but the emphasis was towards liberalization of economy. 
1991 election manifesto watered down the socialist and egalitarian ideas. In the economic field, emphasis was on reduction of prices, rationalization of tax structure, foreign investment for higher technology, more funds for research and development, better storage facilities for farmers etc. 

After coming back to power in 1991 Congress started to implement the programs under the banner of what has come to be known as New Economic Policy. It became more like a capitalist economy, in the name of more liberal and open financial system. As a result, Land reforms, public distribution and labor welfare were relegated to the background.

“During the 60’s and early 70’s Congress leaned towards left but it rarely advocated major changes. The 1980’s saw the congress shift to the right as it moved to deregulate the economy and to link India more firmly into the international economy.”

The Congress Party’s foreign policy especially under the leadership of Nehru had brought India considerable prominence as leader of Third World block of nations. As the architect of Non-Alignment strategy in foreign policy Congress provided newly independent nations with an alternative to domination by the super powers.  


BJP was founded in April 1980 as a result of second split in the Janata Party. It is a general opinion that BJP is the new and modified version of Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS) founded in 1951. The organizational backbone of BJS was the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) founded in 1925. The objective of founding the BJS was the rebuilding of Bharat as a modern, democratic society in accordance with religious percepts and four fundamentals of “One country, one Nation, one culture and rule of law. BJS and RSS supported the Jai Parkash Movement, especially its anti-Congress stance. BJS dissolved itself in 1977 and became one of the major constituents of the then formed Janata Party. After Janata Party’s defeat in 1980 elections and accusations against BJS members for being ‘communal’ the erstwhile Jan Sangh members along with some others came out of the Janata Party and formed Bharatiya Janata Party. 

BJP tried to project itself different from BJS. While permitting dual membership with RSS they proclaimed that their ideal was ‘Gandhian Socialism’. According to critics this ideology was projected to help BJP to overcome on the one hand the accusation of its being associated with Gandhiji’s assassins in the RSS and on the other to refute the allegation that they were not regular, socialist or nationalist. 

Nevertheless in concrete terms the program of BJP was vague. As:-   

In 1984 party manifesto laid equal stress on the development of agriculture and industry, reduction of taxes, recognition of the citizens’ fundamental right to work and steps to improve standard of life. Thus in due course ‘Gandhian Socialism’ was transformed into ‘Liberalized Swadeshi’ 
BJP election manifesto for 1996 Lok Sabha Elections show that on economic policy the party was still vague. It wanted to please everyone. BJP promised to lesson the tax burden of indirect taxation on the general mass of people. At the same time, it resolved to raise the income tax exemption limit. 
BJP’s policies, as a coalition partner in ministries in 1998 are a clear indication of its favor for a neo-liberal shift. 
The most important aspect of BJP ideology is its cultural nationalism. BJP ideologues have never quite hidden their belief in a restrictive notion of nationalism, of favoring religion as a primary marker of identity. 
In December 1999 it gave clear hints to leave behind the aggressive Hindutva and isolation in favor of mainstream nationalism, business optimism and technological advance in the process of globalization and readiness to share power in coalition governments. 
In the manifesto for 1998 elections it promised to facilitate the construction of a magnificent Ram Temple at Ayodhya. 
The Hindutva aspect of the ideology of the BJP still is crucial to its raison d’etre and is a powerful mobilizing instrument for a large number of North Indian Hindus who have been attached to this ideology for various reasons. 

Nitish Bhardwaj

@nitish9bhardwaj on Twitter

The Writer is a Civil Services Aspirant and a student of Political Science.

1. M.P Singh, “From Predominant to Polarization: The Indian Party System”
2. Sachidanand Sinha, “Our Party System: Sources of Instability”
3. Shashi Tharoor, “ The Case for a Presidential System” Sunday Observer, January 6-12, 1991
4. A.S Narang, “Indian Government and Politics”. 

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