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A rope of many strands

Why a fragmented party system stabilises India’s democracy

Written by Kanchan Chandra |
May 28, 2009 1:09:29 am

India’s party system is now more fragmented than ever before in its history.  In the first elections in independent India,about fifty parties competed (see chart),only a handful were viable contenders to win seats at the national level,and only one party — the Congress — was a viable contender to form a government. In the 2009 parliamentary elections,over three hundred parties competed,with another thousand registered with the Election Commission. There were at last count eighteen parties propping up the Congress-led government. Another twenty parties sit in opposition.  And hundreds of parties,while they did not make it to the national parliament,nevertheless remain significant forces in state assembly elections.  

According to a commonly held point of view,such a high degree of party fragmentation is bad news for India’s democracy.  India is one of the most diverse countries in the world,with many dimensions of difference,including those based on class,income,religion,sect,language,dialect,caste and tribe.  A country with this much social diversity,the argument goes,needs a single political party,or a small number of political parties to hold it together.  This at any rate is a standard political science argument that has led many political scientists to champion the “aggregative role” the Congress historically played in Indian politics. And it is certainly the argument that the Congress has often reiterated in its election campaigns,promising that it is the only party that can unite India against various unnamed “fissiparous tendencies.”   

But in fact,this high degree of party fragmentation is good news for India’s democracy.  It gives voters from most social groups a magnified voice in the national arena — a voice that they did not have in the heyday of the Congress system and probably could not have had in any one or two party system. And it gives leaders from these social groups who may have otherwise gone out on the streets,a greater incentive to join electoral politics than they would have had otherwise.  In doing so,it exerts a stabilising influence on democracy in India. 

Consider first the impact of a fragmented party system in giving voice to voters from most social groups. Under a single party government,numerically small social groups often went ignored in politics especially at the national level. But in a fragmented coalition environment,small groups make a large difference. This is why every party in this election campaign aggressively identified and courted minorities: The BSP,the Congress and the SP all courted Muslims in Uttar Pradesh,the JD(U) courted the “extremely backward castes” in Bihar,and the BJP supported statehood for Telangana and Darjeeling (this for just one additional seat!). We have never had an election in which small groups were given such great importance in national level elections. And as the circle of groups that have a direct stake in national level politics widens,democracy in India becomes that much more legitimate. 

A fragmented party system also offers young community leaders a greater incentive to join the political system than a single party system.  As long as the Congress party was expected to form a single party majority government,opportunities for advancement in electoral politics were blocked for many potential new entrants. Channels for upward mobility were blocked within the Congress party,where,in the absence of organisational elections,new entrants could potentially wait for years to get ahead,if at all.  And there was little to be gained from forming a new political party since new parties had a low probability of obtaining power.  But in a highly fragmented party system,parties with even two or three seats can participate in government,or influence those who participate. 

The fragmentation of the party system,then,has completely transformed the incentives for people to enter politics.  To see how much,look again at the chart. From 1951-1984,when the Congress was mostly expected to win control of government,there is not much of a trend to form new parties at the national level. For much of this time,the number of parties competing in parliament was actually lower than it had been at independence. But expectations began to be transformed with the1989 election,and with that more and more people moved to form parties. With every election since 1989,more and more people have moved to form parties,with the largest leap coming in this past election — over a hundred new parties were formed between 2004-2009!   

It is tempting to dismiss this wave of entrants into politics as power-seeking opportunists. It certainly is power-seeking opportunism. But it is also a sign of something more important. We must ask ourselves what those who are now forming parties and fighting elections with such enthusiasm would be doing if they did not see an opportunity in politics. Many of those who create political parties lack the capital — the networks,the wealth,the skills — to launch equally promising careers in the private sector.  Politics provides an alternative channel of upward mobility.  Had this channel continued to be blocked,we may well have seen these political entrepreneurs out on the streets. The alternative to an explosion of political parties may well have been an explosion of social unrest. The former is surely preferable.

The writer is an associate professor at New York University

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