India’s success in remaining a democracy despite considerable odds is viewed and judged primarily in its minimalist/procedural form, encompassing little apart from a multiparty system, regularly held free and fair elections, peaceful and regular transfer of political power on a periodic basis through the electoral route. India stands out among the ‘new’ democracies for having an uninterrupted history of holding of free elections over such a long period of time (even national emergency imposed in the mid–seventies did not disturb this, only delayed it). What has also impressed political analysts globally is the sheer scale1of participation, involving multiple parties and candidates, and with intense participation of the huge electorate, constituting one sixth of the world’s electorate. Unsurprisingly then, the study of elections, electoral system and electoral politics has assumed great significance in the last three decades in academic writings on Indian politics.
It is this success that makes it imperative to study political parties and the party system for any student of Indian politics, since parties constitutes the ‘key building blocks’ of the edifice of electoral democracy.
Indian democracy, in its seven decades old career, has been witness to sixteen Lok Sabha elections and over 350 State assembly elections, not to mention the countless local government elections (p. xv). When it comes to the number of parties and level of electoral participation, India, unlike the ‘older’ democracies of the West, has been witness to a massive increase on both counts. The 2014 elections saw 464 parties in the fray, including 419 registered unrecognized parties, 6 national and 39 State parties. Of these, as many as 38 parties were seat winning parties in the 2014 elections (now 40, with the addition of RLD and JMM) of all hues turning India into an ‘electoral laboratory’ for the study of parties in a liberal democratic setup (p. 5). The same election saw an all time high of 66 percent turnout, much higher than the ‘older’ democracies of the West. Unlike the latter, the turnout has increased incrementally with the lower level bodies elections.
What has contributed to the presence of so many parties in the electoral arena, many of them actually winning the election decisively at the State level or succeeding in being a partner in a coalition government at the centre? Diwakar refers to three factors: ‘India’s federal structure, electoral system and rules, (and) the presence of numerous overlapping social cleavages’ (p. xix). Importantly, the author draws our attention to the fact that it is not only the sheer number of parties that have emerged but also the variety of these parties in terms of their electoral presence, ideologies, social and spatial support base, and the varying/dynamic nature of party alliances within and across the states. These factors turn India into a test case for the study of the nature of the party system as it functions on the ground.
As for the framework of this short introduction, it is structured around five chapters. The first chapter of the monograph summarizes the seminal research on party systems and contextualizes it in the Indian context. This helps the author in focusing on a typology of parties and party systems, as undertaken by political analysts engaged with India studies across time periods (pp. 21-30). This allows Diwakar to take stock of the rise and decline of the ‘Congress system’, referring to the emergence of parties at the State level deriving support on the basis of caste and region. Among others, she refers to the seminal work of Ziegfeld (2016) to mark out three trajectories followed by these parties in a ‘post-Congress polity’—parties confined to a State due to the limited geographical influence of its leader (BJD); parties having national ambition but unable to spread out (NCP & SP); erstwhile national parties disintegrating into State parties
(JD (S) (p. 21).
The next three chapters undertake a detailed analysis of the transition from the Congress dominated party system to the ‘post-Congress polity’, accompanied by fragmentation and the rise of coalitions across states. The social factors triggering the rise of these ‘new’ parties, such as growing politicization and mobilization of identities based on caste, region and religion gets a mention. Chapter Five takes the discussion forward to post-2014 India, since not only did a party get clear majority in the Lok Sabha after nearly three decades, but also started winning State level elections with regularity, mostly at the cost of the incumbent Congress. The chapter, written shortly after the 2017 assembly elections, especially in UP, argues that the BJP’s success against State parties lies in its electoral strategy which is ‘a combination of an all India politic narrative and state-specific factors’ (p. 149). Despite its impressive range of victories that makes the BJP a ‘principal nation party’, Diwakar argues that it is not as yet ‘a system defining’ or a ‘dominant’ party like the Congress in the 1950s and 1960s (p. 134).
The central argument that runs through the monograph is that the Indian party system has been, and continues to be ‘shaped by a complex interaction of various sociological, institutional, and contextual factors’, and that the overlapping of these factors ‘produce an environment of constant flux for the parties’ (p. xix). This flux has been captured well, with the help of figures, tables and charts in this short introduction which is essentially a survey of select literature on the subject.
The monograph would have gained by giving a little more space to the discussion of some crucial issues. First, while Diwakar refers to the ‘region’, she should have gone beyond the state and referred to the historically constituted social/cultural ‘sub-regions’ which have increasingly turned into political regions with distinctive electoral choices, and throwing up ‘smaller’/minor parties in an already fragmented party system (Kumar, 2011). Second, the ‘importance of political leadership’ (p. 142) in shaping the party system needed more discussion. India has had ‘many more political leaders than other countries—leaders who have won and lost elections, run and mis–run governments, and exercised the political imagination of their constituents in myriad other ways’ (Guha, 2010, p. 288). The list increasingly includes State level leaders, who, as the founders/inheritors at the behest of ‘their’ weakly institutionalized parties, perform the task of ‘aggregating and representing public opinion’ (Chhibber and Verma, 2018). The ‘Modi factor’ is also symptomatic of ‘person-centred’ leadership that is afflicting even a cadre-based party and seems to be galvanizing opposition unity reminiscent of the Indira Gandhi regime.
Third, while discussing the role of factors such as caste, religion and region in facilitating the rise of regional parties and their leaders, Diwakar could have focused on ‘newer’ forms of patronage and clientelism based on ethnic sectarianism that have helped them link with the electorates (Chandra, 2004; Ziegfeld, 2012). The linkage between patronage benefits or benefits from government policy, voter turnout, and final vote intention has been explored in the Indian context by Ahuja and Chhibber (2007). Fourth, the author refers to fiscal decentralization in place since 1990s as contributing to the growth of regional parties (p. 103), but completely misses out on the politics of electoral finance (Gowda and Sridharan, 2012). Fifth, given that the monograph aims to cover the available literature on parties and party systems, the classification of the State/regional parties should have also have been undertaken in detail, and included the relevant writings of Sridharan (2012, p. 326), Ziegfeld (2012, pp. 72-3), Ayyangar and Jacob (2014, p. 235).
The strength of this short introduction lies in providing a comprehensive survey of the major theories and approaches adopted for the study and research on parties and party system in India, with a focus on the ‘post-Congress’ era. In my considered opinion, it is a helpful reading for all students and academics engaged with India studies.
Ashutosh Kumar is in the Department of Political Science, Panjab University, Chandigarh.
The central argument that runs through the monograph is that the Indian party system has been, and continues to be ‘shaped by a complex interaction of various sociological, institutional, and contextual factors . . .’
1 India’s 16th Lok Sabha election, with 840 million voters, was not only the biggest election in world history but possibly also the biggest ever human managed event, political or sports.