At times met with too little trust and at times with too much, the Indian political party presents a stained mirror to the demotic will
Women voters at a polling booth in Outer Delhi, Jan. 1952 (Getty Images); Voting in progress at Ghaziabad, UP, during the 2019 LS elections (Photo by Chandradeep Kumar)
Democracy has thrived in India amidst a competition between two models. Formally, it’s a multi-party democracy: the power to administer the Union, as also the states that compose it, is attained via a first-past-the-post system of elections. But an implicit tendency to unipolarity/bipolarity—with national parties forming its core—marks its genetic code too.
This was visible from the first general election of 1952, swept by the Congress. The party’s domination continued till 1967. Its internal feuds created fragments that crystallised into newer parties—Swatantra in the 1960s, Janata in the 1970s. These often overlapped with or segued into politics writ from the periphery rather than the centre. Regional parties rode the surf of identity and culture in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Assam. Social blocs created another analogue in caste-based parties like the SP, RJD and BSP.
If splinter parties like TMC, NCP, TRS, YSRCP—coming in a steady birth rate since the 1990s—weakened the Congress in the states, the centre didn’t hold against the electoral march of the BJP. Saffron reordered electoral politics, using money, muscle, technology, predation and the cult around Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In a sense, the unitary model is reborn in him, as the perennial battle between centre and periphery rages.