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  • Indian Democracy:Stress and Resilience
  • Atul Kohli (bio)

India's democracy continues to be an enigma. Its survival in the midst of grave poverty poses a problem for all who would generalize about economic development as a prerequisite of democracy. On the other hand, the political turbulence that periodically rocks India lends credence to such theories and alarms friends of democracy around the world. The period since 1989 has been an especially tumultuous one, even by Indian standards. The 1989 elections produced a minority government that lasted only about a year, with loud and often violent conflicts erupting over both religious and distributive issues. The caretaker government that replaced the elected government did not survive long, as coalitional instability took its toll.

The 1991 elections, sadly, were also marred by violence, including the assassination of the heir to India's premier political family, former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. Nevertheless, relatively fair elections were completed and power was transferred smoothly from one centrist party to another. The Congress (I) party, which has dominated Indian politics for most of the postindependence era, went from 197 to 225 seats in the 524-member Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament.1 While still short of a majority, Congress (I) was able to replace the minority government headed by the Janata Dal party, which saw its parliamentary share plummet from 143 to 55 seats. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—a right-leaning, religious (pro-Hindu), and nationalist party—nearly doubled its share of the popular vote and increased its [End Page 52] representation in the Lok Sabha from 85 to 120 seats, a gain that made it India's main opposition party. The minority Congress government is ruling with the tacit support of the leftist parties and the Janata Dal, all of which are politically exhausted after two elections in as many years, and eager to avoid a third one. As a result, the Congress (I) government under Narasimha Rao has gained some respite, but the political situation remains unstable.

The sustained functioning of democracy in India has proven to be something of a two-edged sword. Four decades of electoral politics have strengthened democratic habits and expectations, but they have also unleashed new forces in this poverty-stricken, hierarchy-ridden society that are now beginning to strain democracy itself. Three trends associated with these forces are worth discussing: the changing nature of the Congress party; the growing political activism of various socioeconomic groups; and the fragmented nature of the country's opposition parties.

The Evolution of the Congress Party

Although the Congress party has been India's ruling party for most of the past 40 years, its electoral victories since 1967 have not come easily. As the major nationalist party and leader of the successful struggle against British colonialism, the Congress was India's "natural" ruling party in the 1950s. Although the Congress has never won an absolute majority of the popular vote, India's system of plurality elections in single-member districts enabled it to win consistently large parliamentary majorities during the first two decades of independence. During the 1960s, however, opposition to the Congress began to grow. Like India itself, this opposition was diverse. It was led by a regional nationalist party in the southern state of Tamil Nadu; by a religious party, the pro-Sikh Akali Dal, in the Punjab; by various communist parties in West Bengal and Kerala; and by parties resting on the support of middle-level rural castes in the populous heartland state of Uttar Pradesh.

Ever since that crucial election of 1967, in which it nearly lost its parliamentary majority, the Congress has had trouble maintaining a stable majority coalition. Indira Gandhi, who inherited the mantle of her father Jawaharlal Nehru, won the 1971 election handsomely, but under drastically changed political conditions. The old Congress party had split in two in 1969, and the Congress (I) faction led by Indira Gandhi never acquired the hallmarks of an organized party, such as regular membership, internal party elections, or a lower tier of leaders with genuine grassroots support. Instead, Indira Gandhi adopted a populist slogan, garibi hatao ("Away with poverty!"), and appealed directly to India's...


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