Congress Decline and Party Pluralism in India

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The Indian National Congress party was founded in 1885 to petition the British government in India for administrative and political reform. Under British rule, the Congress gained experience in contesting elections and in governing at provincial and municipal levels. In the 1920s, Mohandas Gandhi reorganized the party, which helped it to evolve into one of the world's largest membership-based, mass organizations. Principled and well-organized resistance to British rule confirmed the Congress as the party of Indian national independence. As the Second World War weakened Britain's colonial grip, the Congress was invited to take charge of the central government, almost a year before independence in August 1947.(2) The Congress has been the party in government at the national level, or the center, for all but six years since India's independence, 50 years ago.(3)

Today, however, the Congress is out of power and, for the first time since independence, it is not the party with the greatest number of seats in the Lok Sabha (People's Council), the popularly elected house of Parliament.(4) The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People's Party) occupies the largest block of seats. Twenty-eight parties are represented in Parliament, the largest number in independent India's history. A coalition of 13 regional and left parties, the United Front, presently governs at the center.(5)

The Indian National Congress has been the most important institution in India's modern political development. The Congress, a favorite example of a dominant party in a competitive party system, was thought to be the backbone of the developing world's best institutionalized democracy.(6) Today, the Congress is seemingly in advanced stages of decline. Each of the non-Congress parties, including those presently in government at the center and in most states, represent more focused interests than the Congress can seemingly retain. Moreover, many suggest that the Indian political system is being destabilized by rising social unrest and institutional decay.(7) That sentiment is buttressed by the increased electoral support to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in past parliamentary elections and in a number of significant state assembly elections.(8) Some have cautioned that the new social forces and popular demands that have lead to religious revivalist and to caste-oriented parties cannot be accommodated in a parliamentary democracy.

The leadership, constituencies, issues and electoral strategies of political parties have undergone significant change in the 50 years since independence in India. Do these changes, most notably the decline of the Congress, signal the arrival of more pluralist politics in India? To advance upon this question, this essay comments on the evolution of the Congress within the Indian political party system.(9) A brief assessment of the reasons for and the depth of the Congress's decline suggests that the Indian party system is neither in the midst of systemic crisis of governance nor endangered by religious revivalism. Emergent forms of electoral appeals and political contest may not quite conform to the theoretical postulates of pluralism, but as the Indian electorate has broadened, the Indian Parliament and India's more than two dozen state assemblies are becoming more representative of Indian society as a whole, including its caste, class, religious and other social cleavages.

Congress Dominance

The Congress ruled continuously at the center and in most Indian states, from the first general election in 1952 until the 6th general election in March 1977. The party has retained power at the center more often than not since. However, the Congress has been dominant not by virtue of its command of an undemocratic electoral system but rather by virtue of its depth of leadership and its organizational capacity. Although the Congress had been the dominant party, it has not attempted to make itself into an organization with an exclusive claim to governance, as have Mexico's Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party) and Indonesia's GOLKAR. …