Democracy by Fragments?

With state parties capturing a greater slice of the electorate, their self-interests pose an even greater threat to good governance

Supporters of the new Samajwadi Party (SP) chief minister in Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav, cheer after he took his oath of office. The triumph of regional parties like the SP confirm the prediction that the era of national parties may be reaching its end. PAWAN KUMAR / REUTERS
01 April, 2012

THE ELECTION RESULTS IN UTTAR PRADESH and four other states last month have confirmed that the standard analysis of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections—which suggested the national parties were in fact on their way back to dominance—was false.

Between the general elections in 2004 and 2009, the Congress increased its vote share by only two percentage points—from 26.5 to 28.5 percent—but this translated into an additional 61 seats in the Lok Sabha, thanks largely to the increasing fragmentation of other parties. Without the benefit of a split in the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, and the creation of new parties in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, the Congress and its allies would have fared far worse. The real story in 2009, obscured by the Congress victory, was that for the first time state parties took more than 50 percent of all votes—52.5 percent, to be precise, up from only 43.5 percent in 1991.

I am using the term “state parties” here in a broader sense than the official one employed by the Election Commission, which defines a “national party” as one with nominal representation in the Lok Sabha or state assembly across at least four states. That criteria grants ‘national’ status to what are, in essence, state parties: the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which won 20 of its 21 Lok Sabha seats in UP; the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M), which won all its seats in Kerala and West Bengal; the Nationalist Congress Party, which won seats only in Maharashtra; and the Rashtriya Lok Dal, which took seats only in Bihar and Jharkhand.

To this list could be added a host of other ‘state parties’ of varying alignments: some are regionalist or ethno-nationalist parties, like the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab or the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu; some, like the BSP and the Samajwadi Party, are, historically, caste-based; others are personality-driven breakaway factions from national parties, like Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress or Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United). All of these parties—with the possible exception of the Communists—share a common characteristic that distinguishes them from the national parties: their horizons tend to be restricted to a limited territory.

Until recently, the rise of these smaller state and regional parties was regarded as a positive development, one that embodied the democratisation of Indian politics and reflected the emergence of lower-caste voters as a powerful electoral force. Under the old Congress system, a set of vertical, clientelistic relations structured the electorate: local landlords, industrialists and moneylenders used their dependents—tenants and labourers—as vote banks. But when lower castes established their own parties in the 1980s and 1990s, this efficient pyramid began to disintegrate. This social and political shift was the result of several factors: decades of reservations for the Dalits and of socialist politicisation among other lower castes, as well as the erosion of caste hierarchies that accompanied the increased economic autonomy of the peasantry after the Green Revolution. Factionalism à la Congress also helped, since upper-caste leaders recruited—and politicised—foot soldiers among the plebeians.

Along with the emergence of low caste parties, overall turnout began to rise, as plebeian voters—with the help of the Election Commission—began to stand up to intimidation meant to keep them from the polls. Turnout reached unprecedented highs in UP last month, and the trend holds across the country. In fact, the demographic profile of the Indian electorate is exceptional among democracies: almost everywhere else, rich voters have a higher rate of participation than poor voters; here, the poorer the citizen, the more likely they are to vote.

The growing clout of lower-caste parties led to both vernacularisation—a turn away from elite idioms, including English—and decentralisation. The days of Indira Gandhi misusing President’s Rule to disband state assemblies faded into the distant past, as state parties were now needed to keep ruling coalitions in power at the centre. The smaller parties served, at least theoretically, as a balance against the excessive concentration of authority in Delhi, while their larger partners tried to be accommodating to ensure governments remained in office for their full term. And voters benefited from what the first-past-the-post system is supposed to guarantee: a bipolar party system offering citizens a clear choice.

But the weakening of the centre, which once seemed a desirable outcome, has now reached a critical point. The United Progressive Alliance government today is not only paralysed by differences between the left and right wings of the Congress, it is captive to the whims of the state parties, which appear to have little regard for the national interest—witness the endless debate on the National Counter-Terrorism Centre—and even the rule of law.

The state parties defend their actions by invoking federalism, which has been one of the most legitimate “isms” in India since the mid-1980s—around when the Sarkaria Commission on centre-state relations began its work. In fact, Rajiv Gandhi was the first person to promote federalism, in Punjab and Assam, where his mother had demonstrated the excesses of centralisation. After years of dysfunction domination from New Delhi—in a country allergic to centralised authority, where even imperial unity had been rare over the centuries—the pendulum was bound to swing back to the other extreme.

But small, it turns out, is not necessarily beautiful. Many state parties are under the control of authoritarian leaders—in some cases, plutocrats exploiting their own states while the centre stands by silently, fearful of losing their support. These feudal lords may have thrived as India democratised, but they rarely practice democracy within their own parties, whose second-line leadership often consists of family members. Heirs of regional bosses have assumed power from fathers or fathers-in-law and become chief ministers in Haryana, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, UP, Jammu and Kashmir, and Punjab.

Twenty years have passed since the short-lived Third Front experiment (1996-98) when, under the aegis of two improbable PMs, Deve Gowda and IK Gujral, an unlikely coalition rallied around the Janata Dal and the communists with the outside support of the Congress. The next Lok Sabha elections seem unlikely to deliver a sizable mandate for one of the national parties—which raises a series of questions about the potential for stable governments at the centre. Will national parties be able to hold on to pivotal positions and overcome paralysis? Will state parties form pre-electoral alliances and contest elections as a bloc, or will we be returned to the opaque post-election horse-trading that shaped coalitions between 1989 and 1999—a decade when prime ministers remained in office for an average of two years?

India is once again at a crossroads. On one hand, fragmentation along party lines seems to be the price to pay for democratisation. On the other, the regional parties are not particularly democratic and governance suffers from their whims. It took 10 years for the country to adjust to the decline of the Congress—between 1989 and 1999 India had a PM every two years. Since then, parties have learnt the art of coalition politics and stability has prevailed. The new challenge looks like a step further in the same direction: now that state-parties are centre-stage, they need to be upgraded in terms of internal democracy and to learn how to work on behalf of the national interest.

Christophe Jaffrelot is a contributing editor at The Caravan. He has authored several books including The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics and Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the rise of Ethnic Democracy. He is a senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris; a professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London; and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.