The Wall Street Journal
New Delhi

Party Time in India's Democracy

Politics in the world’s largest democracy has become a crowded affair in the past 60 years.

In India’s first general election in 1952, 53 parties competed, in 2009, more than 360 outfits entered the race.

It means multi-party coalitions are now the norm and as Indians prepare to vote in the country’s 16th general election starting April 7, regional powers such as West Bengal’s Trinamool Congress, Uttar Pradesh’s Samajwadi Party and Bihar’s Janata Dal (United) are likely to exert great influence on the formation of the new government.

They could even club together to form a “third front” to take on the two largest parties – Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The boom in political parties has partly to do with India’s immense diversity.

“If we move from one state to another, the population is heterogeneous. We speak different languages and have different cultures, and if these diversities are not reflected well in the national parties, I think this is what has led to the emergence of so many regional parties,” said Sanjay Kumar, director at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, a New Delhi-based think tank.

Caste in particular has allowed smaller, regional parties to mobilize voters and grow in size and importance. The cleavage has allowed people to coalesce around a certain issue or cause and addressed injustice in Indian politics and society by strengthening the political voice of marginalized groups, according to Milan Viashnav, an associate in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.

Until the mid-1960s, the Congress party, then led by India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, was the single dominant force in Indian politics, said Mohammed Badrul Alam, head of the political science department at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University. The party’s dominance diminished, however, after the death in 1964 of Mr. Nehru, who had played a prominent role in the independence struggle and held the party together, he added.

“We saw the monopoly of the Congress party decline,” he told the Journal.

At that point, local party officials began to express their unhappiness with the party leadership in New Delhi, who they felt were ignoring local issues, said Mr. Viashnav in a telephone interview. Resentment grew, leading to regional, breakaway parties, he added.

These new parties soon began to eat into Congress’ support base, according to Mr. Kumar.

“Regional parties have risen because they have been able to capture anxieties and aspirations of various sections of society and these are the communities which voted for Congress in big numbers before like the Dalits,” Mr. Kumar said in a telephone interview.

The proliferation of new parties occurred in the late 1980s. At the start of that decade, just 36 outfits fought in the general election, but by 1989, the number of competing political groups had jumped to 113. In the 1996 general election, there were over 200 competitors.

This trend occurred as regional players saw parties other than Congress or the BJP becoming serious power brokers after garnering a handful of seats in Parliament.

“This gave impetus to others to form and contest,” Mr Viashnav, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said.

Some analysts say financial incentives to join party politics also played a part.

“Perhaps, and this is speculation, people form parties to raise money,” said Jagdeep Chhokar, a founding member of the Delhi-based Association for Democratic Reforms, which campaigns for more transparency in government.

Mr. Viashnav added: “There’s no question that politics has become an incredibly lucrative enterprise. If you look at the affidavits of successful contestants who have held onto their seats, we often see growth in their assets disproportionate to their known sources of income, so there’s clearly something going on there.”

Are there too many parties in India?

Mr. Alam from Jamia Millia Islamia thinks so.

“It isn’t an ideal thing. Multiplicity of political parties confuses a lot of voters,” he said, adding however that India “can live with it because it doesn’t make a difference on the ultimate outcome.”

At this stage, it’s not known how many parties will battle it out in the upcoming election – to be held in nine voting phases in April and May.

K.F. Wilfred, who oversees the Election Commission of India’s division registering new political parties, thinks there is a chance “that the number will go a little bit up” compared to the 2009 election.

“We’ll only know once all the constituencies go to poll. We won’t have it before the completion of the election. By end of May, we’ll have it, not before that.”

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