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  • India: Fragmentation Amid Consensus
  • Pratap B. Mehta (bio)

In the wake of the general elections of April and May 1996, the Indian political scene presents a paradoxical combination of party fragmentation amid ideological consensus on major matters of policy, especially in the economic realm. The elections marked a watershed in that the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerged as the single largest party in Parliament for the first time, while the long-dominant Congress party sank to a historic low of 28 percent of the popular vote and went from 274 to 139 seats in the 545-member lower house. A governing coalition known as the United Front took over after it became clear in late May that a scheduled vote of parliamentary confidence would bring down the just-formed cabinet of BJP leader and prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The United Front, led by Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda (former chief minister of the southwestern state of Karnataka), is a collection of 13 parties united only in their desire to keep the BJP out of power.

The 1996 results continue trends that were apparent to attentive analysts of the 1989 elections, which propelled the National Front coalition government of V.P. Singh to power with the support of the BJP and two communist parties. The 1996 outcomes are similar to the results that might have flowed from the 1991 elections, had there not been an outpouring of voter sympathy for the Congress party after its leader, onetime prime minister Rajiv Gandhi (1984–89), was assassinated by Tamil ethnic separatists during the multistage balloting.

The four elections since 1987 bear witness to the extraordinary fluidity that democracy has brought to India’s once rather fixed power structure. It may be considered a triumph of democracy that Robert A. [End Page 56] Dahl’s classic question “Who governs?” is now far harder to answer. New leaders, new parties, and new coalitions of parties have all emerged with dizzying speed. For all its limitations, democracy has proved to be a successful vehicle for the political empowerment of the country’s populous “backward” castes. Indeed, the end of upper-caste political dominance has been nothing short of a quiet revolution. 1

Indian voters have increasingly used their ballots to express dissatisfaction and cashier governors deemed responsible for misconduct. In elections since 1987 for India’s 25 state governments, less than 15 percent of incumbent administrations have been returned to power; the general trend, even at the national level, now clearly works against incumbents. A diffuse sense of dissatisfaction pervades a large slice of the electorate, and few politicians in power can feel secure.

The party system has also been transformed. 2 No longer is it characterized by a dominant party (i.e., Congress) embodying a centrist consensus, with rightist and leftist parties on the margins. The Congress party is losing, if it has not already lost, its capacity to gather an enduring electoral majority. Not only is its share of the national vote at an all-time ebb, but it also suffers from an unprecedented leadership vacuum. It is no longer the party that binds state and society by providing the framework within which a heterogeneous mass of ideologies and interests can be reconciled and arbitrated into consensus.

Congress’s decline has complex causes. The greater politicization and mobilization of the electorate eroded much of the clientelism that had become a party mainstay. The failures of the socialism associated with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1947–64) discredited Congress’s traditional ideological plank. Parties and other movements representing India’s “backward” castes emerged, even as such traditional Congress supporters as “scheduled” castes and Muslims drifted into a state of alienation. 3 These trends were in evidence as far back as the 1970s, but leaders like Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1966–77, 1980–84) and her son Rajiv were able to blunt their electoral impact by building coalitions around their own personalities. In the short run, this masked the symptoms of Congress’s decline, but at the cost of a degree of centralization that ultimately exacerbated the weakness of the party’s organization and left it vulnerable to the debacle of 1996...

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pp. 56-69
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