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At the time of India’s independence in 1947, few expected it to survive as a democracy due to excessive illiteracy and poverty, and the presence of diverse population. However, India has survived as a functioning democracy with a vibrant party system, and so far has successfully held 17 national elections and over 350 state assembly elections.
Chapter one discusses about the rising political consciousness of the people during India’s independence movement against the colonial rule and led to the establishment of various political parties which in turn shaped the framework of the Indian party system post independence (p.2). The election commission of India (ECI) is entrusted with the task of registering political parties, allotting party symbols and conducting election. According to ECI, at present there are 6 national, 39 state and 419 registered unrecognised parties.
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After independence, India’s parliamentary democracy and the introduction of universal suffrage provided greater freedom for parties representing different ideologies and social groups to emerge and evolve the party system. The Congress was the most important political party in India at the time of independence. Many new parties were formed during the 1950s and 1960s by dissident Congress factions. These included the Socialist Party, Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party, Kerala Congress, Swatantra Party and Bhartiya Kranti Dal. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the Congress dominance started declining. Many parties were formed at the state level as part of support in favour of the non-Congress parties. This included the Shiv Sena, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and Communist party of India.
After being a dominant party for many years, the Congress witnessed a major split in 1969 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi formed the Congress(R) and Congress (O) being the other faction. The anti-Congress agitation led by J.P Narayan, and the subsequent imposition of emergency in 1975 culminated in the formation of the Janata Party.
Further the disintegration of the Janata party led to many new parties being formed in the 1980s and 1990s like the Samajwadi Party (SP), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Janata Dal (United)(JDU), Janata Dal (Secular) (JDS) and Biju Janata Dal (BJD).The 1980s and 1990s also witnessed the formation of many parties that appealed to the voters on the issues of caste and regional identity.
The author in Chapter two discusses about the congress system and its subsequent decline. After independence, the Congress became a pan-Indian political organisation, which worked at all levels of the country’s political landscape (p.37). In the first 4 national elections held in1952, 1957, 1962 and 1967, the Congress emerged as a catch all party. As a result, the congress enjoyed unshared governmental power at the centre and in most of the states.
After the 1967 national election, the Congress started losing support at the centre and in many states, and the party system began to become more differentiated across the Indian state. The 1977 election marked an important mile stone in the decline of the Congress in Indian politics. Although Congress continued as the most important not the dominant national party, winning the next 2 national elections in 1980 and 1984, the party system became more competitive.
Many parties at the national and state level had emerged by 1989 to provide alternatives to the Congress, which no longer remained a choice for the electorates as earlier. This created electoral space for the regional parties, as well as the BJP and other national parties.
The third chapter elaborates the rise of BJP and Hindu Nationalism. The BJP was formed in April 1980 and has its roots in the BJS that was formed in 1951 on a Right- wing Hindu Nationalist agenda. The BJP’s expansion during the period 1989-2004 took place in various stages. From winning just 2 seats in 1984 election, BJP’s seat tally rose to 85 in 1989, 120 in 1991 and 161 in 1996, when it first emerged as the single largest party. Its success continued in the 1998 and 1999 national elections when it won 182seats on both occasions, and was able to lead the NDA coalition governments. Although the BJP-led NDA lost the 2004 and 2009 national elections to the Congress-led UPA coalition and the BJP’s seat and vote share declined, it returned to power through a decisive victory in the 2014 national election, winning a majority of seats (282) on its own, the first time any single party was able to do so since the 1984 elections.
The author in the fourth chapter discusses about fragmentation of party system and the period of coalition politics. Thus, the period following the 1967 in India saw the emergence of anti-Congress forces at both the national and the state assembly elections. Fragmentation of the national party system after 1989 and has been described as India’s “third electoral system”, where many social identities such as caste became politically salient. As a result, major national parties lost support in the late 1980s and 1990s in many states to regional parties like SP, BSP, TDP, AITC, SHS, RJD and BJD.
The author in the fifth chapter mentions about the emerging trends in the Indian Party System. The Indian party system today includes the BJP as the primary national party, the Congress and other national parties continue to face decline. The support base of national parties no longer spans the entire country, and they have to often rely on alliances with regional parties to increase their chances of gaining power at the centre and in the states, thus coalition politics remains important in the prevalent party system.
The emergence of AAP and its success in the 2015 Delhi state assembly election was largely attributed to the leadership provided by Arvind Kejriwal who effectively used the issue of corruption for political support and mobilisation.
Therefore, the party system remains in a state of flux, where parties continue to form, split and merge, and the increase in the number of parties in the recent years is in contrast to the one party dominant system that existed during the first two decade after independence.
The methodology used in the book is largely analytical and descriptive. The author has adopted a mixed approach of qualitative and quantitative research on the Indian Party System.
The author of the book elaborately describes the functioning of Indian political system since the very beginning and also gave an insight on political parties and their role in protecting and promoting democracy. However less importance is given to the regional parties and the subsequent role played by them in the formation of government at the state and the national level. India currently has a multi party system, which allows for the representation of diverse views and opinions. Political parties form a part of an evolving institution framework both at the national and the state levels, and they remain central to the sustenance of India’s democratic politics and culture. Indian democracy has remained relatively stable, in which political parties have used constitutional means in the form of elections to fight political and ideological battles leading to peaceful transfer of power between governments.
Kanchan Chandra, in her book Why ethnic parties succeed: Patronage and ethnic head counts in India, examines the performance of ethnic parties in patronage democracy. Like, Rekha Diwakar she too draws attention towards the nature of political parties in the Indian party system, but her study is focused primarily on regional ethnic parties. Kanchan Chandra’s book is a Comparative ethnographic study regarding the nature and performance of ethnic parties and their success in patronage democracies. On the other hand, Rekha Diwakar’s book is more holistic covering national and regional political parties in general context.
The political parties in India face many challenges and issues including criminality in politics, use of money and muscle power in elections, developing effective organisations and leaders and ensuring internal democracy. Despite all the challenges faced by the political parties in India, they remain the most important link between the state and its citizens. 70 years after independence, a vibrant and competitive party system remains a key to the Indian political life and the role of the political parties in the survival and functioning of Indian democracy remains paramount.
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