Why India has so many parties

Proliferation of parties can be traced to the making and unmaking of chief ministers by the Congress high command in the 1980s

Written by Pradeep Chhibber | Published: April 30, 2013 12:46:57 am

Proliferation of parties can be traced to the making and unmaking of chief ministers by the Congress high command in the 1980s

In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections,363 political parties (seven national parties,34 state parties,and 242 registered and unrecognised parties) contested,along with 3,831 independent candidates. Thirty-eight political parties (and nine independents) are currently represented in Lok Sabha. Twelve parties have only one member,seven are represented by two members,another 10 have between three to 10 members in Lok Sabha. Only the Congress and the BJP have more than 5 per cent of the seats (27 seats) in the House. With the emergence of new players on the political map — Jaganmohan Reddy’s YSR Congress,B.S. Yeddyurappa’s Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP),Keshubhai Patel’s Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP),P.A. Sangma’s National People’s Party (NPP),Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) — there could be many more parties trying their luck in the 2014 general elections. At last count,there were more than 1,400 political parties registered with the Election Commission of India.

Why does India have so many parties? The most popular argument links the participatory upsurge among hitherto marginalised sections of society during the 1990s to the explosion in the number of parties. Majoritarian politics around the issues of Mandal and Mandir sharpened caste and religious cleavages,which also led to the creation of more parties.

Our view,however,is different. We claim that the increasing interference of the Central government (especially the Congress high command) in state politics in the 1980s,after Indira Gandhi returned to power,is an overlooked factor in explaining the explosion in number of parties in the 1990s. During the 1950s and 1960s,state party bosses presided over the “Congress system” (to use Rajni Kothari’s memorable phrase) and ran the traditional party machines. These state party bosses were at loggerheads with Indira Gandhi. Consequently,between 1967 and 1975,she did almost everything possible to prevent new,independent centres of power in states from rising again. She split the Congress party in 1969,delinked state and national elections in 1971,and de-institutionalised the Congress party.

Since many Congress leaders deserted her during and after the Emergency,Indira Gandhi restructured the party by centralising the Congress evermore after coming back to power in 1980. State leaders,including chief ministers,were no longer allowed to build an independent local base and were appointed (or dismissed) by the high command. A former Bihar chief minister,Jagannath Mishra,summed it all up: Bhagwan upar aur Indira Gandhi yahaan (God up in heaven and Indira Gandhi down here on Earth). Mishra was neither the first nor the last to echo such feelings. Rajiv Gandhi,upon becoming prime minister after the tragic death of Indira Gandhi in 1984,continued the policy of reshuffling chief ministers.

In Uttar Pradesh between 1980 and 1989,chief ministers were changed five times. V.P. Singh was the state’s CM for two years,followed by two years for Sripati Mishra and then Narayan Dutt Tiwari. After the 1985 elections,Tiwari was replaced by Vir Bahadur Singh within six months. Tiwari again became CM in June 1988. Similarly,in Bihar,Chandra Shekhar Singh replaced Mishra in 1983. After the 1985 elections,Bindeshwari Dubey was made the CM,followed by brief stints for Bhagwat Jha Azad,Satyendra Narayan Singh and Mishra again. Likewise,in Maharashtra,A.R. Antulay,Babasaheb Bhosale and Vasantdada Patil were appointed as CM between 1980 and 1985. In the next term between 1985 and 1990,S.N. Patil,Shankarrao Chavan and Sharad Pawar were made CMs of Maharashtra.

In Andhra Pradesh,between 1978 and 1983,Indira Gandhi appointed four different leaders (M.C. Reddy,T. Anjaiah,B.V. Reddy,K.V. Reddy) as CM. This “high-handedness’ helped N.T. Rama Rao mobilise voters around the issue of “Telugu pride” and comfortably win the 1983 assembly election. Between 1989 and 1994,three different CMs (M.C. Reddy,N.J. Reddy and B.V. Reddy) represented the Congress party in Andhra Pradesh. In Assam,along with deep unrest over illegal immigration from Bangladesh,the state saw three periods of president’s rule and three different chief ministers (Anwara Taimur,K.C. Gogoi and Hiteshwar Saikia) between 1980 and 1985,before Asom Gana Parishad under Prafulla Mahanta swept the 1985 polls. Karnataka has a similar story. Popular leader Devraj Urs was forced to resign and Sanjay Gandhi handpicked Gundu Rao as the CM of Karnataka. Therefore,the Janata Party under the leadership of Ramakrishna Hegde managed to defeat the Congress in the 1983 elections. Dismissing S.R. Bommai’s government using Article 356,Congress appointed three leaders (Veerendra Patil,S. Bangarappa,and Veerappa Moily) as the CMs of the state between 1989 and 1994. The shocking circumstances in which Patil was dismissed by Rajiv Gandhi led directly to the Lingayat community shifting their support to the BJP and the subsequent electoral success of the BJP in Karnataka.

Chief ministers in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh were also changed. Jagannath Pahadia,Shiv Charan Mathur,and Hira Lal Devpura were appointed as CMs of Rajasthan between 1980 and 1985. After the assembly elections in 1985,Hari Dev Joshi was appointed as CM,followed by Shiv Charan Mathur. Before the 1990 state elections,Hari Dev Joshi was again reinstated as CM for a year. Rajiv Gandhi used the same policy of changing CMs in Madhya Pradesh. Replacing Arjun Singh,Motilal Vora was made CM after the 1985 elections. After three years,Arjun Singh was reinstated as CM in 1988. Vora was again brought in for a year to replace him. And three months before the assembly elections,former CM Shyama Charan Shukla was asked to lead the government.

How did this making and unmaking of chief ministers lead to an increase in the number of parties in the states? If the decision about who gets access to positions within a party or holds executive office on behalf of the party is arbitrary,and is frequently made by one leader,then others within the party are unsure of their career paths. Therefore,a politician would likely desert his parent party and join another party to enhance his career prospects. However,lateral entry to a similar position in another party is not always easy. Therefore,powerful politicians find it easier to form a new party to contest elections. As Congress leaders were discouraged to build an independent base within the society or party,it provided opportunities for ambitious leaders within the party to explore other avenues for political advancement. The data shown in Figure 1 on the number of parties that compete for elections in the large Indian states provides ample evidence for the impact of the actions of the Congress high command. The number of contesting parties increases sharply in the states where the Congress party shuffled CMs rapidly in comparison to states where CMs did not rotate so rapidly (West Bengal,Tamil Nadu,Kerala,Orissa,Gujarat,Punjab,Himachal Pradesh,Haryana).

The increase in the number of parties associated with the making and unmaking of state leadership changes the incentives of politicians. As the winning differential (the difference in the vote share between the winning party and the runner up) at the constituency level declined,it provided greater incentive to a politician to form a political party and contest elections. Figure 2 shows that as the margin of victory declines,the number of parties that compete increases. Since elections are won by narrow margins in terms of vote share,even a small share of votes can provide a handful of seats. In an era of coalition politics,a few seats provide large returns to individual politicians in terms of their ability to extract resources from the government in power.

The centralisation of the Congress party and its unwillingness to tolerate strong state chief ministers created a space for political leaders to form new parties. The proliferation of parties and the large unwieldy coalitions at the national level is associated with the high-handedness of the Congress high command in making and unmaking state leaders.

The writers are with Travers Department of Political Science,University of California at Berkeley,US

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