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  • India Defies the Odds Enduring Another Election
  • Atul Kohli (bio)

Indians appear to love the practice of democracy so much that they are in danger of overdoing it. In February and March of 1998, the world’s largest democracy held its twelfth general election since gaining its independence a half-century ago. The voting was largely fair and peaceful. New, right-of-center rulers led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) replaced the old, left-of-center ones. The handover of power went smoothly. There is a hitch, however, for while the first eight general elections were spread over the initial 40 years of independence, the four most recent have been held within the past decade. The new government—a coalition of disparate parties that together command a parliamentary plurality but not a majority—is the seventh since 1989. Clearly, all is not well. India’s democracy still endures, but frequent elections are failing to produce stable and effective governments.

Table 1 compares the 1998 election results with those from 1996. Simplifying somewhat, one can say that the three main contenders in both elections were, respectively, the BJP and its allies on the right; the Congress party and its allies in the middle; and the United Front (UF) on the left. 1After the 1996 election, the UF—an array of a dozen or so groupings including the Janata party, the Left Front with its collection of Indian communist and socialist parties, and a number of regional parties—had the largest parliamentary presence. With support from Congress, it formed the government for nearly two years, under the prime ministership, first of Deve Gowda, and then of Inder Gujaral.

OTW Table 1.
Parliamentary Results in India, 1996 and 1998
Major Parties 1996 1998 1
Seats Won Percentage of Votes Secured Seats Won Percentage of Votes Secured
BJP 161 20.3 179 25.4
Allies of BJP 2 26 4.0 72 10.8
Congress 141 28.8 141 25.8
Allies of Congress 3 —- —- 26 —-
United Front 4 174 28.6 98 20.9
Others 41 19.3 24 17.5
Totals 543 100 540 100

1. These results are calculated from a variety of sources: magazines, newspapers, and especially the website of the Election Commission of India at These results should be treated as preliminary, especially the percentage of votes secured. The total does not always add up to 100 due to rounding errors. The results do not include three parliamentary districts, including two in Kashmir, whose election results were not available at the time of writing. Blanks also indicate that the data are not readily available.

2. Major allies of the BJP in the 1998 elections who have now also joined the government include the AIADMK party associated with Jayalalitha of Tamil Nadu (18 seats) and the Samta party associated with George Fernandes of Bihar (9 seats).

3. Congress’s major ally in 1998 was the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), associated with Laloo Prasad Yadav of Bihar; the RJD won 17 seats. Where data are not readily available, Congress allies are generally part of the “Others” category.

4. The United Front (UF) was a loose coalition of some ten parties going into the 1998 election. Two UF parties with more than double-digit parliamentary presence are the Communist Party of India-Marxist (main base in West Bengal) with 33 seats, and the Samajwadi Party (associated with Mulayam Singh Yadav of Uttar Pradesh) with 20 seats. Another significant party, the Telegu Desam Party (TDP) associated with Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh, won 12 seats but withdrew from the UF after the election; the TDP now has an independent parliamentary presence and so far has supported the BJP government from “the outside.”

The 1998 election became necessary when Congress withdrew its support of the UF government. Congress had few, if any, serious policy [End Page 7]differences with the UF; the main reason for the split was the Congress leadership’s hope—a false one, as it turned out—of gaining political advantage. The Congress held on to its parliamentary strength in the 1998 election, but the UF suffered significant losses. The BJP, especially with its regional...

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