Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Issue 12 of Firstpost print.
India has begun voting for the 17th Lok Sabha, and by now, the country has witnessed approximately 500 state Assembly and local government elections. This presents a unique opportunity to understand elections as defining moments in shaping our democracy.
In the cacophony of polarising social media and 24X7 news channels, it is not surprising that elections as a site of correcting social and economic inequities get lost in projections and predictions. Most commentators use adjectives such as ‘wave’, ‘tsunami’, ‘earthquake’ and ‘juggernaut’, which reveal little about an election or what the outcome indicates about the electoral politics in the future.
At best, these terms can mean an election in which there is an overwhelming sentiment for or against a political party that will lead to a substantial increase or decline in its vote and seat share. The vague definition or the cut-off point at which everyone can agree has ensured that the usage of such terms is driven by a partisan perspective.
Critical elections and party systems
Prannoy Roy and Dorab Sopariwala in their book The Verdict describe India as a site of landslide elections. They define ‘landslide’ as when the largest party wins at least twice the seats as the runner-up. They show that while the rate of landslide victories has declined in comparison to the first two decades of our democracy, in case of Lok Sabha elections, the winning party, or a pre-election coalition, get a landslide majority three in four times. While the rate of such victories for Assembly elections is significantly lower, still one in every second election ends in a landslide majority.
While the concept of a landslide is useful, it does not inform us about the organisation of India’s electoral space and the nature of choices voters have to elect their representatives. Each election has a shadow of the past and tells something about the next. Political scientists use the framework of ‘party system’ to understand the rules of the electoral competition, i.e., the menu of choices that a voter gets at the time of the election. And because parties operate in that system, it also limits and opens up possibilities of how they organise and mobilise.
Old party systems make way for new when a ‘critical election’ marks a sharp and durable political realignment between parties. Some political observers believe that 2014 brought in the fourth party system: a BJP-led dominant party system. If the BJP manages to form the government after 23 May, as most pre-poll surveys predict, there will be fewer doubts about the longevity of this system. India’s first election in 1952, then the ones in 1967 and 1989 marked the shift from one party system to the other.
In the book Ideology and Identity: The Changing Party Systems of India, which I co-authored with Pradeep K Chhibber, we show that the movement of political parties in the ideological space marked the transition from one party system to the other (See Figure 1).
These transitions had far-reaching consequences: it led to the long-term structural decline of the Congress (Figure 2) and the rise of the BJP as an electoral force in many parts of India through the 1990s and a dominant player nationally post-2014 (Figure 3). It also created competitive spaces that brought a different kind of representatives in India’s Parliament and state assemblies — a highly under-researched area.
The four-party system
The 1952 Lok Sabha election was a grand experiment and a leap of faith: a giant country, with a huge population that was illiterate and poor and no previous experience, was conducting an election at such a large scale with the universal adult franchise.
With the next two elections, in 1957 and 1962, India’s democratic framework started taking shape. But, the elections were conducted in the shadow of doomsday predictions that “fissiparous tendencies” would break India into multiple nationalities.
The 1967 election marked a sharp departure, as the Congress party’s majority in the Lok Sabha got reduced, and it lost many state assemblies. Though the Congress continued to remain a dominant play nationally, it faced rising opposition in many states. Indira Gandhi brought sweeping changes both within the government as well as in the Congress organisation post-1967.
The national and assembly elections were de-linked in 1971. The Congress suffered a huge defeat at the hands of a coalition of opposition parties in the election conducted after Emergency in 1977. The Janata Party government, however, buckled under the weight of its ideological contradictions and the Congress returned to power in 1980. The analysis of results indicated continuity than change.
Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 created sympathy and the Congress won a landslide. The allegations of corruption against the Rajiv Gandhi government dominated the campaign in 1989. A coalition of regional parties came to power with the support of the BJP and the Left Front. The 1989 election signalled the decline of the Congress and the rise of the BJP as its national alternative. This election heralded an era of coalition governments, and its implications became clearer in the late 1990s.
The 1991 election was held in the shadow of Ram Temple mobilisation and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Though the BJP emerged as the single largest party after the 1996 election, political instability led to two successive elections. In 1999, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was victorious. It also signalled the emergence of bi-polarity at the national level, where the Congress and the BJP were to be the anchors of two coalitions.
The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) formed the government after the 2004 election. Five years later, the coalition won a bigger mandate. But, allegations of massive corruption during UPA-II not only severely damaged the Congress’ prospect in 2014 but also made it harder for the party to make a comeback. The rise of the BJP in many states post-2014 confirmed the onset of the fourth party system.
So it does not matter if 2019 sees a wave or is a wave-less election. The crucial question is whether the results will ensure the development of a BJP-led dominant system or this transition would be halted on 23 May.
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Updated Date: Apr 14, 2019 13:29:41 IST