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Mainstream, VOL LV No 14 New Delhi March 25, 2017

People in Politics: The Dynamics of Polarisation and Power

Saturday 25 March 2017

by Pradeep Nair and Sandeep Sharma

In 1998, while being the head of an alliance of 26 political parties, the then Prime Minister of India, Atal Behari Vajpaee, once frustratingly said that India should look for the possibility of adopting the presidential system which, in his view, would be more permanent and representative. However, amongst all the political compulsions and political opportunism, some of the electoral arrangements at the Centre and in the various States went on for another decade by making coalition politics almost a permanent feature of Indian politics. But the BJP’s sweeping majority in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections brought this trend to a halt. Political pundits were left with no option but to redo their political calculations. Nationwide data of the Assembly elections substantiate this point by making a strong case for a one-party rule. The first half of the second decade of the 21st century has witnessed a political scene in which 23 States, including Delhi, have one party in a position to form a majority government while there are only six such States where governments are being formed by pre- or post-poll alliances.

With these evidences, we are not terming this the end of coalition politics in India; rather we are interested in examining the factors which have led to a situation of more permanent (a majority) government at the Centre and in the States. By looking back at some events in Indian political history while approaching the outcome of Uttar Pradesh, Uttrakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur Assembly elections, we will be unearthing the dynamics of power and polarisation in Indian politics.

Party Polarisation among Voters

Party polarisation in electoral studies is basically known as an effort by a political party to create increased feelings among partisans/believers that that party is right and the party contesting other side is wrong. More etymologically, it is a clustering of elements around two poles, such as the division of an electorate into two partisan clusters. It further describes the widening of distance between two ideological elements. (Dahl, 1966) On some issues, the political parties, which are ideologically distinct, come closer to make the people believe that they really care for public interest issues related to national security, terrorism, corruption, good governance etc.

Party polarisation among voters generates a more energised and engaged electorate. In the history of Indian politics, party polarisation is not a new phenomenon. (Davey, 1972) In the past general elections, voters polarised on the issues of war, Emergency, national security or corruption especially when these issues went beyond the tolerance level. A very loose pattern of alignments with ideological overtones emerged in late 1969 and early 1970 in Indian politics when the two wings of the Congress and socialist ideologies formed coalitions with distinct ideological identities for electoral adjustments for parliamentary and State Assembly elections. (Brass, 1968) In the 1977 general elections, a new coalition of political parties opposing the ruling party came into power as the Janata Party and legitimised the concept of alternative government against the Congress.

In 1989, 1999, 2004 again political parties having different ideologies came together to form governments at the Central level although political scientists and analysts believe that at the time of forging alliances or forming coalition govern-ments, the ideological and methodological differences of political parties were set aside for the most part until the coalition began to break down under new pressures. (Groennings, Kelley and Leiserson, 1970) It happened with the Janata Dal Government in 1979-80 at the Centre and the Bahujan Samaj Party-Bharatiya Janata Party (BSP-BJP) Government in Uttar Pradesh in 1995, 1997 and 2002. The same history could have been repeated if the SP-Congress got the mandate in the the latest Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. Negative feelings from the public towards candidates and elected officials of the ruling party sometimes help political parties to polarise the people in their favour as had happened in the last 2014 Lok Sabha elections when the Narendra Modi-led BJP got the mandate against the Congress on the issues of corruption, scams and poor gover-nance.

Polarisation and Power

Many a time polarisation of voters brings a party in power. In the general elections held in 1980, voters were polarised on the line of providing a stable government as the alternative government to the Congress collapsed within two years giving two Prime Ministers—Morarji Deasai and Chaudhary Charan Singh. People again polarised in 1984 with the post-Indira assassination impact sympathising with Rajiv Gandhi and brought the Congress back to power. The same happened in 1989 in the form of a frail mandate to V.P. Singh and the National Front at the Centre and a clear mandate to Kalyan Singh in Uttar Pradesh. A different polarisation was also noticed in the last Assembly elections in Delhi where people gave the mandate for an alternative government to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) against both the Congress and BJP. The mandate given to the Narendra Modi Government in 2014 was also the result of a similar process of coming to power where the credit went to the Congress as the corruption and scams during UPA II polarised the voters towards a more conservative choice in the form of the NDA Government.

In this digital age where people wish to be connected 24x7, this political polarisation is linked more with people’s information environment. The news sources, social media habits and inter-personal communication networks of the voters help them to understand the polarisation from various socio-economic viewpoints and these further assist them in their voting decisions; that is why a voter residing in Delhi prefers a BJP Government at the Centre but at the same time chooses an AAP Government at the State level.

The dynamics of polarisation and power in democracy is not a new concept. (Kothari, 1970) It was primarily the product of long-term historical and structural forces set in motion in the 1970s when non-Congress political leaders urged nationalist and democratic forces to come together to form a Grand Alliance to keep the Congress out of power in the 1971 general elections. Unfortunately these alliances in long run proved to be electoral alliances only and failed to offer real policy alternatives to the ruling party.

In the post-liberal era, the reforms in our electoral system have made our voting process more participative thereby helping the political parties to manage the consequences of polarisation to promote effective governance rather than inconsistent electoral arrangements.

People in Politics

Voting is the most basic way people participate in democracies, but not the only way. There are other multiple forms of political participation. The conventional way of participation can be noticed in the form of polling, interacting with the elected officials, attending political rallies, giving donations to political parties and endorsing candidates at the personal level. The unconventional form of participation is also common by taking part in boycotts, demonstrations, strikes, protests and the justification for these is that the other conventional means are closed.

Factors like motivation, national interest, political awareness, civic responsibilities are common to affect the voting turnout in any election. The Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections have higher turnouts as the elections are intense and decide the formation of governments at the Central and State levels. The elections to Municipal Corporations and Village Panchayats witness less voting. It is always a subject of interest for political analysts to find out how and on what basis people make voting decisions. It was observed in the last two Assembly and parliamentary elections that the people generally vote for a candidate or a political party on the basis of what they think personally about the candidate; how they view the state of the nation and the economy; how they view the candidate’s party (party identification); and how they view policy issues of domestic and national importance.

People vote for a candidate on the basis of the way the candidate is positioned on paper by the party itself and by the media, whereas voting in view of the state of nation and economy is mostly based on the socio-political context in which the political campaign is designed and conveyed. Selection of a candidate in the context of the affiliation of the political party helps the voters to determine the campaign strategies and assists them to understand where the mobilisation efforts were put in. Voting according to the proposed reforms in the current policies in the party manifestos depends on the nature of the policies and on their salient features thus helping the voter to position the candidate in and around a public discussion/agenda.

Polarisation and the possibility of a one-party rule are positively correlated. (Abramowitz and Kyle, 2008) The 1971, 1984 and 2014 parliamentary elections maintained a one-party government at the Centre and reversed the trends toward multiparty coalitions. From 1969 to 2014, the Indian political system has polarised sharply on several occasions and proved that the greater the polarisation, the more the possibility of one party performing well at the hustings. Political events like the Emergency, assassination of celebrated politicians, riots of communal and casteiest nature have always polarised the Indian voters and benefited a particular political formation by leading it to majority and close to political power.

Some political personalities themselves are polarising figures. Their speeches and appeals are capable enough to stimulate high-voltage emotions in the minds of the political audience by making them almost blind and myopic. The history of the Indian electoral studies shows that to be polarised is not an intrinsic nature of the Indian voters. It happens whenever a political event/situation, as mentioned above, leaves a deep impress on the conscious and sub-conscious minds of the Indian voters. Whether polarisation is compatible with democracy or not, could be argued in the light of the speech of Winston Churchill in which he characterised democracy as a ‘lesser evil’ and said: “Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” (Churchill, 1947: 150)

Even though polarisation leads to consensus among different ideologies to develop a culture of argument among voters and politicians (Dworkin, 2006:6) that is healthy for any democracy on the one side, the electoral arrangements in the form of coalition with the vested interest of gaining power in elections on the other side only bring deep and bitter divisions and thus become a tyranny of numbers, a possibility in each and every election in India.


Abramowitz, A. I. and Kyle, L. S. (2008), ‘Is Polarisation, a Myth?’, The Journal of Politics, 70 (2), 542-555.

Brass, P.R. (1968), ‘Coalition Politics in Northern India’, American Political Science Review, 3, 1174-1191.

Churchill, W. (1947), “Parliament Bill, Speech in the House of Commons, November 11, 1947”, The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 3rd ed., Oxford. Oxford University Press.

Dahl, R.A. (1966), Political Opposition in Western Democracies, New Haven.

Davey, H. (1972), ‘Polarisation and Consensus in Indian Party Politics’, Asian Survey, 12(8), 701-716. DOI:10.2307/2643110

Dworkin, R. (2006), Is Democracy Possible Here? Principles for a New Political Debate, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Groennings, S., Kelley, E.W. and Leiserson, M. (eds.), (1970), The Study of Coalition Behaviour: Theoretical Perspectives and Cases from four Continents, New York: New York University Press.

Kothari, R. (1970), Politics in India, Boston: Boston University Press.

Dr Pradeep Nair, Associate Professor and Dean School of Journalism, Mass Communication and New Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh Temporary Academic Block, Shahpur, District—Kangra, Himachal Pradesh—176 206. He can be contacted at e-mail:

Sandeep Sharma, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala

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