Despite a controversy regarding their validity, most opinion polls are indicating that the Congress may be heading for one of its worst electoral defeats in independent India. The poor performance of the Congress is often attributed to two sets of factors. The first points to the UPA’s poor performance in power, the high command culture that has not allowed the emergence of “home grown” talents at the state level, and elements of dynastic rule at multiple levels.
The second set attributes the Congress’s looming losses to the fraying of the ideological centre of Indian politics that was most closely associated with the Congress party.
While there is some truth to both these claims, in our view, the Congress faces a far deeper structural problem during the 2014 elections. Without a distinct political message, the Congress is indeed facing a clear challenge from a resurgent right-wing BJP and the weaker Left. The far bigger challenge for the Congress is, however, from regional parties like the Aam Aadmi Party that seek to occupy a place within the same centrist space as the Congress. The emergence of these centrist parties has hurt the Congress far more than either the BJP or the Left.
Why is the Congress being hurt more by the emergence of new political parties? The regional parties that have emerged in a majority of Indian states often have an ideological underpinning that is not at all different from the Congress’s. This raises two questions. First, why were these regional parties able to populate the same centrist spot as the Congress? Second, what are the consequences of the rise of these regional parties for the Congress?
Regional parties were able to populate the centrist space occupied by the Congress because the Congress party, even in the days before independence, was primarily a collection of regional elites. Its presence on the ground was much thinner in princely India compared to the areas that were under British control. After independence, Nehru followed a very similar model as Gandhi’s to nurse the Congress party organisation.
The party’s organisation was weak and Congress documents from that era point to the absence of district-level organisations in many parts of India. Party membership of the Congress in the 1950s and early 1960s fluctuated with election cycles. The number of party members (the membership fee was 25 paise then) was always higher in the years before the elections. This was because the multiple candidates seeking a Congress nomination populated the list of members with their respective supporters. Once the election was over, there was no need to retain members.
By the end of the 1950s, the left and the right elements had left the Congress. The decline of the Congress in the mid-1960s was followed by an electoral resurgence engineered by Indira Gandhi. This resurgence was made possible by an unprecedented expansion of the state. The expansion of the state allowed the Congress to incorporate many more regional elites within the party. The centrist position associated with the party became synonymous with bringing in as many regional elites as possible to share the spoils of government. A good indicator of this is the rapid expansion of state cabinets and public-sector appointments for politicians.
As soon as the raison d’etre of the Congress was linked to positions of power for regional elites, those regional or powerful political elites who felt they were being sidelined in Indira Gandhi’s regime started forming their own political outfits. As electoral competition intensified and smaller parties could gain more power by supporting a bigger party in a coalition, it became much more attractive for political elites representing group interests to move out of the Congress umbrella and demand a larger share of the pie than they would have received if they had stayed within the party. These elites do not have an ideological position different from the Congress — all they seek is political power.
This shift has had enormous consequences for the Congress. We present data from the National Election Study of 2009 conducted by the CSDS, Delhi in Table 1 and Table 2. As the Congress party’s performance during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections has been exceptional since its continuous decline after the 1984 elections (except in 1991, when the party did well in the last phase of the elections owing to a sympathy wave in the wake of Rajiv Gandhi’s killing), one would expect that the Congress would be at its peak on most indicators.
Table 1 suggests that party identification with the Congress is the lowest (24 per cent) in states where two or more centrist parties are present, and the highest (48 per cent) in states where the BJP is its main competitor. Similarly, the proportion of party members who are affiliated with the Congress is the lowest in states where centrist parties are in a dominant position in comparison to states where the BJP is its main competitor.
The Congress’s social base is also very limited in states where there are more than two centrist parties. Table 2 shows that in states where the BJP is its main competitor, the Congress has a broader social base. It gets a substantial proportion of votes from upper castes and OBCs (approximately 40 per cent), draws up more than half of the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST), and gets around three-fourths of Muslim votes. In states with one centrist party, the Congress still maintains the broad social coalition but gets a slightly lower proportion of votes from all segments. In states where there are two centrist parties, the Congress has a very limited social base. It gets less than one-fourth of votes among upper castes and OBCs, less than one-fifth among SCs, and less than one-third among STs and Muslims. We also find that states with more than two centrist parties have higher electoral volatility (the net change in the vote-share of a party from one election to the next) compared to where the Congress faces the BJP.
The Congress needs the BJP for its electoral relevance. In states where the Congress faces challenges from regional parties that are centrist, the Congress faces a far harder task of rebuilding a social coalition that represents everyone. This, as we argue, is because the Congress enjoyed a hegemonic status in Indian politics primarily because it was a collection of regional elites. The fragmentation of the Indian party system is largely a result of the failure to accommodate political elites from different sections of society. This has three implications. First, party-building through local elites requires keeping everyone happy and therefore populist politics becomes part of the system. Second, social groups in such political systems are accommodated via elites and thus the polity becomes leader-centric. Third, leader-centric polities rely heavily on clientelistic networks. This system gradually undermines the administrative structures of the state. As the bureaucratic machinery loosens, its autonomy is compromised, government policies are rarely implemented fairly and corruption becomes endemic. The election campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha is witnessing a playing out of these three implications. It is also forcing us to re-imagine the historical understanding of party-building and democratic deepening in India.
The writers are with Lokniti, Delhi and the Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, US