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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 13, March 14, 2009

Crises of Indian Parties

Sunday 15 March 2009, by Vandana Mishra


Democracy in India has survived for about six decades now. During these years India has witnessed numerous open threats to competitive politics, both from within and without and still she has survived. What is, however, important is that the democratic exercise that we witness in India is despite the kind of political parties and the resultant party system that we have. The blatant decay within parties and the self- destructive conflict among parties have succeeded not only in eroding the strength of our political system but also raising a question regarding its very survival.

Over the past ten decades, the Indian electorate has been witness to a number of significant changes in the Indian party system. The celebrated ‘Congress system’ has witnessed a progressive and drastic decline and a multiplicity of political parties has emerged, each one representing a limited social, economic, cultural or sectarian interest. Fragmentation of the polity and the narrow sectarian lines of political mobilisation by these newer political parties has dominated the political scene. ‘Ideology’ as the mainstay of a political party has been relegated to party docu-ments and is being taken over by personality- centred organisations and dynastic politics. Also, centralisation, de-institutio-nalisation, defections, factionalism, religion, caste, role of money and muscle power, criminali-sation of politics and similar other traits are playing a pre-ponderant role in creating the apparently visible chaos in India politics.

Interestingly, the decay of the Indian political parties is neither spontaneous nor can it be traced to just two or three decades back. The process has been rather gradual. To understand this, it is important to study the traits that underline the present Indian party system/political parties.

1. Proliferation of Political Parties

At present there are 702 registered parties in India, out of which seven are recognised as National and 44 are recognised as State parties. In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections 230 parties fielded candidates and 40 parties recorded representation of one or more seats in the House. This multiplicity of parties is the result of any one or all of the causes mentioned below :

(i) The major national parties could not successfully satisfy the aspirations of the ‘regions’ which later on manifested into the formation of regional parties.

(ii) The emergence of dual perception of national interest as defined by national parties on the one hand and by the ‘champions’ of regional aspirations on the other. For example, in Punjab, Kashmir, Assam, and so on.

(iii) The caste, linguistic, religious and similar other diversities have also led to the formation of parties.

(iv) Factionalism has led to the formation of parties based around leaders / personalities. For example, the NCP (Sharad Pawar), TC (Mamta Banerjee), BJD (Biju Patnaik), etc.

(v) Growing centralisation of, and suspension of democracy within, the Congress party leading to the exit of those leaders whose voices were not given sufficient space.

(vi)The overemphasis by the national governments to make India more centralised and less federal in character along with the continuing neglect of the regional aspirations has led to a reaction resulting in the proliferation of the regional parties since 1967 and their increasingly active role in the arithmetic of government formation at the Centre. (Table 1.1)

2. Ideology/Idealism versus Populism

It is increasingly becoming difficult to place the Indian political parties on an ideological continuum. Except the leaders, there is nothing which differentiates one from another. Opportunism has overtaken ideology in politics. It is hard pragmatism that matters. The parties are governed not by adherence to the norms of democracy, nationalism, secularism and socia-lism—they are all dispensable. When it comes to vote politics, compromise and surrender of ideals is a common behaviour pattern of the political leadership.

Table 1.1

Growing Numerical Strength of the Regional Parties since the 1984 National Elections
Years of Poll 1984 1989 1991 1996 1998 1999 2004
Seats 66 30 42 110 168 182 190
per cent of votes 12.7 15.5 15.1 23.6 23.6 24.3 24.8

EPW – Vol. 35 (6), February 12, 2000, Vol. 39 (51), December 18, 2004, pp. 5539.324.254, p 2.

Had there been an iota of loyalty towards party ideologies in the minds of the rank-and- file of the various political parties in 1967 and afterwards, unscrupulous coalitions among as heterogeneous constituents as Communists (Marxists) and Swatantra, Socialists and the Jana Sangh, the BJP and Communists (together supported V.P. Singh’s minority government) and the Congress and Communists (political foes in Kerela since 1952) would never have come into existence. It is really strange that parties contesting against each other during elections come together to share power without the least objection from their party cadres or supporters.

Populist slogans, media management, Bollywood charisma and personalised electio-neering are considered as election winning techniques. Consequently and unfortunately, ideology and idealism have lost not only their relevance but also their mass appeal.

3. Personality Cult

Personality cult, the crowd mentality of Indian hero worshipping, is not only accounting for distortions in voting behaviour of the electorate but has also resulted in the rise and continued existence of many small parties.

In the Congress, right from Nehru to Sonia Gandhi, the emphasis of the leadership had been on personality and not on the ogranisational unity of the party. The common political logic undergirding the playing of the Sonia card, despite having many senior and experienced Congressmen, was that only she would probably emerge as a national level vote-catcher.

Leaders like Jayalalitha, Chandrababu Naidu, Mayawati, Bal Thackeray, Laloo Yadav, Sharad Pawar, Raj Thackeray, Mamata Banerjee, and so on, are sole leaders of their respective parties. Their personal ambitions are seriously impeding these parties‘ functioning as cohesive units. Centralisation of power in the hands of the supreme leader has, it seems, obviated the need for organisational elections which have not taken place in many national as well State parties for decades.

Table 1.2

2004 Lok Sabha (Record of Major Parties) BJP
Candidates with criminal records 61 55 36 13 13 48 9 7 - - 242
MPs with Criminal Cases 29 24 11 8 7 7 5 2 - - 93
Convicted criminals as MP - - 1 2 - 1 - - 1 1 06

Source :

4. Defections

This is one trait in Indian politics which make a mockery of the Indian party system and the Anti-Defection Bill. Political defections have resulted in unpredictable alliances reducing elections to a mere farce. Politicians today—in whichever party they may be—are bound together not so much by affinity of ideals or ideology as by a common hope of sharing political power and enjoying other personal benefits. Since parties are merely vehicles of contesting elections and getting to positions of power, changing a party is like changing one’s campaign manager.

This politics of defection has a glorious history of more than 70 years. At the 1937 elections held under the GOI Act 1935, the Congress was returned with absolute majority in the United Provinces. However, Chief Minister Govind Ballabh Pant deemed it proper to induce some members of the Muslim League to cross the floor and joint the Congress. One of these, Hafiz Mohammed Ibrahim, was included in the Congress Ministry. With the exception of Hafiz, none of these defectors resigned his seat in the Assembly to seek re-election on the Congress ticket. In January 1950, another group defection in UP occurred when 23 MLAs crossed the floor and formed themselves into the Jana Congress. In 1953, a PSP leader, Prakasan, was lured to the Congress on the promise of being made the CM of Andhra Pradesh. And so on.1 Kashyap reported that on an average2 more than one legislator changed each day and for some time one government fell each month. By the end of March 1971, approximately 50 per cent legislators changed their affiliations .3 During the 1967 elections, politicians at State level are said to have charged Rs 20,000 while performing the role of ‘Gaya Ram’ and Rs 40,000 for the role of ‘Aya Ram’—the return trip thus amounted to Rs 60,000 .4

Defections just point to the inner state of political parties suffering from division, frag-mentation, factionalism, personality cult and bossism. Also, lure of office, narrow majority of the ruling party/front and lack of commitment towards political ideology have contributed towards increasing cases of defection.

5. Criminalisation

The nexus between crime and politics is not an entirely new phenomenon. What is new in recent decades is an enormous increase in the number of individuals with criminal records directly operating in politics. There is probably no political party today that does not harbour a number of criminals holding party and even legislative/ministerial posts, the figure in some runs into double digits. A fairly common observation is that in the past criminals and musclemen were used by politicians, now the criminals themselves have joined the ranks of politicians. The political parties in their desperate attempt to win as many as seats possible at any cost in a possible hung Parliament had opened their doors to anyone and everyone who had the quality and capacity to win the elections. In the present Lok Sabha (2004) there are 120 MPs with criminal cases against them out of 543 that is, 22.1 per cent.

The study of elections in India reveals that criminalisation of politics is not a nascent phenomenon. Even in the 1952 general elections at 200 polling stations repoll was ordered, because of booth capturing and the number increased to 1670 in 1989.

The above mentioned factors and the resultant behaviour of the parties have changed the public perception about them. They have failed to represent the masses and are bracketed as inordinately self-interested, riddled with internal disagreements, incompetent of conceiving consistent policies and prone to corruption and scandal. Hence, we are tempted to raise certain questions :

1. Why a two-party system did not evolve in India ?

2. Are the present crises a recent development or were they inborn in the way the parlia-mentary institutions were introduced in India?

3. Are the coalition governments the result of social diversity or the failure of one political party to represent this diversity?

4. Is the increasing role of regional parties in the ‘numbers game’ making India more federal or fragmented?

Henceforth the need of the hour is to understand (i) the cause of the current crises and (ii) whether a remedy can be suggested in the present system.


1. Subhash Kashyap, The Politics of Defection, National : Delhi, 1969, pp. 23-25.

2. Subhash Kashyap, The Politics of Power, National Publishing House, Delhi, 1974.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

The author is a Senior Lecturer, Department of Political Science, Motilal Nehru College, University of Delhi.

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