This blog has been created long after these essays were written. Most of them were written as assignments for an Oxford University tutorial under Professor Indrajit Roy completed in the Michaelmas term in 2011 and as such have not been completely edited for the purpose of a blog posting. My primary interest is in the field of economics but the Indian political scene has always fascinated me and it was a worthwhile experience to research and understand the context in which the Indian socio-economic development has taken place. While a majority of the papers are specifically on India, there will be some on Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The papers are mostly based on second hand research and have been cited to provide necessary reference to readers.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Significant Changes in Indian Democracy since 1947

Post-Independence, there was always doubt in the minds of people and political analysts in particular, whether India would survive as a democracy given its intricate social and political diversity and structure. It has survived, indeed, but it hardly remains the kind of system that it started out as.  India has undeniably come a long way since 1947, not only in terms of developing a system of democracy of sorts that has conducted “free and fair elections” without fail in the past sixty four years, but also one with an increasing political consciousness amongst all levels of society. There have been significant changes in what the country’s democracy constitutes of and how it functions. Firstly, the change has been in the competition between existing political parties, where India has moved from a Congress dominated arena to a tightly contested field where the Congress was on one side and all other opposition (however ideologically different they might have been from one another) on another, and finally to a largely two party democracy where both the parties have a pan-India presence and are ideologically diametrically opposite (Yadav). The second significant change can be outlined by the change in people’s perception of democracy, the increasing levels of participation in elections, and the shift in the demographics of electoral participation. It has not only led to a more diverse electorate but has deepened the roots of democracy at the local levels. The final significant change that I would like to outline in this post is the rise of Hindu nationalism from what was a largely secular polity along with the growth of the Sangh parivar in determining the political scenario presently.
One of the more significant transformations in Indian politics has been the change from a “one party dominance system” to one where there is a greater contest in the elections and more developed multiparty democracy (Chatterjee). There are several reasons why the Congress managed to hold on to such a dominant position in Indian politics for so long. Firstly, since the independence struggle, the Congress party had developed into a mass party with a very mature organizational structure that originated at right at the grassroots. An important feature of the ‘Congress system’ that led to such kind of supremacy at the state levels is the autonomy and influence that the top provided to the provincial committees of the Congress. There was a distinct form of intra-party democracy. No other organization had a pan-India presence to challenge the Congress in the Lok Sabha. In fact even in the state assembly elections Congress was dominant throughout. Until 1967 the Congress ruled every state with the exception of Kashmir, Nagaland and Kerala. Even in Kashmir, apart from the initial government of Sheikh Abdullah of the National Conference, the subsequent governments of Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad and the National Conference essentially became Kashmir units of the Indian National Congress. Since the states were also under Congress control, the relationship between central and state governments was cordial and crucial to the one party dominance system (Chatterjee). Even after Nehru’s death, the central bloc (often referred to as ‘the Syndicate’) of Congress that controlled the party was comprised of Chief Ministers or Party heads from various states. It is this bloc that supported, first Lal Bahadur Shastri and then Indira Gandhi’s ascent to the position of Prime Minister. The social situation in India was deteriorating when Indira Gandhi formed her government in 1966. Massive famine coupled with inflation due to the devaluation of the rupee and grave economic conditions caused immense dissatisfaction amongst the people, as witnessed by the huge, often violent protests across the country. Further, there was internal dissatisfaction amongst some of the members of the Congress party and they left the party. As a result, the Congress suffered a massive blow in the 1967 elections. Though remaining in power in the center, the Congress had become considerably weak in some major states. A key reason for the loss of power in the states was the formation of anti-Congress alliance amongst the smaller parties in a state and some of the defectors from the Congress party. Notably amongst these were the alliances in Bihar, Punjab, West Bengal, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. However, this should not be misconstrued as the end of the one party dominance as many of the governments that were formed as coalition governments did not last very long, often due to ideological differences.
The election debacle, nevertheless, was straining relationships within the Congress, as the younger generation of leaders belonging to the Socialist forum inside the Congress supported Indira Gandhi while the Syndicate was growing increasingly wary of the shift of power from the party to the hands of Indira Gandhi. Eventually, the strife ended in the split of the Congress party into Congress (Requisitionists) which supported Indira Gandhi, and Congress (Organization) which consisted of the old bloc. In the aftermath of this split, the Congress(O) MPs removed their support. By the end of 1970, Indira Gandhi did not want to continue with her minority government and called for fresh elections, The results of the 1971 elections were not only surprising but also ushered in a new era of party politics in India. With the record breaking majority that Congress secured, the organizational structure of the Congress under the Indira Gandhi began changing. She took an aggressive stance within her organization and fostered a hierarchical system that was undemocratic and highly centralized around her.  The appointment to various positions came from top down and it caused “people at all levels to tend to tell people above them what they thought those people wanted to hear, so the government’s once formidable power as an information gathering agency soon wasted away”(Kochanek). It created a more dysfunctional organization which allowed opposition to grow and acquire real substance against Mrs. Gandhi’s government. Indira Gandhi’s reaction, which is best described in this account by Stanley A. Kochanek, as:
“Dissent within the Congress, party opposition and press criticism ceased to function as thermostats measuring discontent. They were now interpreted as anti-party, anti-national and traitorous or even foreign inspired…Opposition party attempts to mobilize and express local grievances, valid or not, were perceived as law and order problems”
The Emergency imposed by Mrs. Gandhi, led the power to be even more centralized. James Manor attributes this ‘centralization’ to the weakening of Congress and her power, at least for the elections that happened after the Emergency. On the basis of discontent and hatred towards the Mrs Gandhi and her party, coupled with many members leaving her side and joining the opposition, a coalition of a majority of the opposition consisting of Bharitiya Lok Dal, Congress(O), Bharitiya Jan Sangh formed the Janata Party and swept the elections in 1977. However, ideological differences between senior party leaders who had different agendas, led to the weakening of the alliance and the main allies deserted soon. Congress(I) used the idea of a “stable government” to get reelected into power. The period of power for Janata Party, though insignificant in terms of ushering in a new era, it is a landmark in the history of Indian democracy for being the first time a non-Congress government was in power in the center. An important aspect of the shift in dynamics of Indian politics is the creation of this new class of politicians, the rich farmers, notably created with the advent of the Green Revolution and the rise of the middle and lower castes (OBCs). The tussle for the power bloc between the rich peasantry and the industrial bourgeoisie led to fallout amongst the Janata party and presented Indira Gandhi with an opportune moment to seize and gain control.
A similar decade of Congress dominance followed, notably intervened by the death of Indira Gandhi and the vicious anti-Sikh riots after which her son Rajiv Gandhi took over the reins. Though similar in terms of the political party that governed the nation, there was a significant change in the dynamics of the electorate. Political parties, whether at the state or national level, started focusing on select segments of the polity to benefit themselves. State political parties forced a resurgence which was led by the film star turned politician NT Ramarao in Andhra Pradesh. Under the umbrella of Janata Dal, state-wide political formations had already begun to exercise a significant role in national politics. It was almost like a vicious democratic cycle was being put into place. First, the Congress would win with a massive majority and disappoint those who elected them and then a feeble opposition alliance would be voted in which would fail eventually, not because of the lack of intentions but because of the differences in ideologies. The Rajiv Gandhi government did try to alleviate some of the criticisms against her mother’s government by moving towards a more liberal stance on the economic policies of the country.  The “decisive stimulus” of change in the 1989 elections was what is commonly referred to as the 3Ms of Indian politics:  Mandal, Mandir and Market. These three issues that took political center stage in the closing years of the decade had the perfect conditions to allow for a total realignment of the political ideologies. They did show their effects in the 1991 elections, which considering the cycle established, Congress was supposed to win with a landslide majority. However, they only managed to get a plurality and formed a minority government with the help of the Left parties. The Congress minority government managed a full term and was the game changer that many attributed India’s rapid growth post-1991 to.
The election is said to have ushered in a new era of politics characterized by a more distinct two party democracy, though one could only see the full effects in the 1998 elections. The rise of BJP and its increasing voter base through the 80s was a “three dimensional” growth for the party. It not only increased its presence in Maharashtra and Gujarat, but also beyond the Hindi speaking belt into South India. It also expanded its social structure as it sought to include a formidable rural base consisting of upper caste farmers, OBCs and a few adivasis.  In the political arena, they managed to forge alliances with political organizations at the state level, which were outside the Hindutva ideology. “The third electoral college” as Yogendra Yadav calls the state of politics in India in the 1990s and onwards, remarks a shift of politics from national to the state level.
The second remarkable change in Indian democracy has been that of the demographics of the electorate. The change in how voters have effected elections since the first elections in 1952 is quite noticeable and has shaped in many ways, the nature of politics in India in the present. In the initial two decades much of the population did not understand the power of their votes and there was generally a low level of electoral participation. Since the 1970s and especially in the 1980s there was democratic upsurge that can be best identified by the significance most political parties attributed to in their election campaigns, trying to appease the aam junta or the ordinary people. At the state level many political parties developed focus on a certain part of the demographic and sought votes from the particular sections. A vote, has the same power regardless of the standing of the person in the society and the more the oppressed and backward classes realize this,  the fate of those who will rule within our parliamentary governance will be” determined, in an unexpected way, more and more by those who are weak and powerless and driven by need”. The voters have developed consciousness of their voting power which can be characterized by an analogy of sorts in two examples comparing 1980s and the present. Rajiv Gandhi won the 1984 elections on the basis of a “sympathy wave” following the death of his mother. 20 years later, Chandrababu Naidu called for fresh elections in Andhra Pradesh, after being in power for over 9 years with the hope that they “sympathy wave” would ride with him following the Naxalite attacks on his convoy near Tirupati. He was summarily broomed out of power due to poor performance of his government in key sectors.
The rise of Hindu nationalism has been a long process latent under the dominance of secular Congress. Always been perceived as being on an extreme end of the spectrum of political ideology, the Hindu fundamentalists were more or less kept out of the national political scene by the secular party campaigns of Congress. The rise of RSS and its alliance of Sangh Parivar, not as a political organization, but a cultural one required it to have a political affiliation. Jana Sangh, though started off independently, quickly came under the control of RSS activists. Despite the direct affiliation with RSS, Jana Sangh failed to counter Congress during the early part of India’s democracy because it failed to transcend its roots in the RSS and the Hindi speaking belt in North India. Not only did it not have a pan-India presence, but also lacked support past its “Brahministic interpretation of Hinduism”. The much needed stepping up came in the 1970s when the party in conjunction with Janata Party members managed to provide a stiff resistance during the Emergency and eventually formed a coalition government. The ideological differences aside, the time in control allowed for a rapid expansion of the Jana Sangh machinery. The party broke away from the Janata Party and formed the Bharatiya Janata Party under the auspices of Atal Behari Vajpayee. Though the BJP started out with a Gandhian ideology heavily influenced by J.P Narayan and the experience of some of its members in the Janata Party, its failure in the 1984 elections lead to a reversal back to a communal ideology under L.K. Advani and close cooperation with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad(VHP). The blend of BJP and VHP used religious symbolism to garner votes and saw a remarkable jump in support in the 1991 elections. Though the support afterwards in the state assembly elections in 1993 went down because of the preceding Ayodhya issue, the BJP was quick in distancing itself from the extremist factions of the Sangh parivar, without losing their support. The election campaign canvassed against a corrupt government and raised important social issues and gained unprecedented support in South India, Gujarat and forged an alliance with Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. They also shifted their stance to a more centrist approach that was both appeasing and appropriate if they wanted to claim control in the Lok Sabha. The end of the 90s saw them develop the National Democratic Alliance and push India into a dual alliance democracy led by the BJP and the Congress. The NDA consisting primarily of BJP, Janata Dal, Shiv Sena and other smaller state parties, has since led the battle against the Congress led United Progressive Alliance.
The important changes that have been outlined may not be the only ones. The change in the role of the central institutions such as the judiciary and role of the bureaucracy could also be considered determinants of the system we have. But it is clear that the changes in democracy outlined are significant. The dominance of Congress in a one party dominated democracy gave way to an oppositional alliance based system that has finally turned into a dual alliance system with the formation of UPA and NDA. Electoral participation has increased and changed in form, with a greater political consciousness amongst various strata of Indian society. The rise of BJP and Hindu nationalism in politics has given way to a new brand of politics, one that is not only communal but sectarian as well. Indian democracy will continue to transform depending not only on the governments that come and rule, but greater political understanding amongst the people of the country.

Works Cited

Alam, Javeed. "What is happening inside Indian Democracy." Economic and Political Weekly 37 (1999).
Chatterjee, Partha. State and Politics in India. 1997.
Corbridge, Stuart and John Harris. Reinventing India. Polity Press, 2006.
Hasan, Zoya. Parties and Party Politics in India. 2002.
Kochanek, Stanley A. Congress Party of India. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.
Yadav, Yogendra. "India's Thrid Electoral System." Economic and Political Weekly (1999): 2393-2399.

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