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  • India After the Dynasty
  • James Manor (bio)

The November 1989 parliamentary election in India has probably ushered in a new era in the country's political history. The aggressively centralizing leadership of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, which severely damaged most liberal institutions, appears to have been discredited, opening the way to a period of both greater political accommodation and greater confusion.

The voting for the lower house, or Lok Sabha, produced India's first hung Parliament. Rajiv Gandhi's Congress Party won a plurality of seats (193 of a total of 525) but was nonetheless seen as the big loser, given its four-fifths majority before the election. None of the three next largest parties would support him, so Gandhi went into opposition. A minority government was formed by V.P. Singh, the leader of the second largest party (141 seats), the Janata Dal.1 Singh's centrist government depends for its majority on the support of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) on the left, with 32 seats, and the Hindu chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the right, with 88 seats.2

The Congress Party's loss in the parliamentary election was followed in March 1990 by a dismal showing in elections to eight state legislatures where it had long held power. It lost six of them. The Janata Dal took power in one state, the BJP in two, and a coalition of the two parties in two others. In a sixth, the Janata Dal formed a minority government with support from the BJP and several parties of the left. A few weeks later, Congress governments fell in two more states. Shortly [End Page 102] thereafter, the state legislatures, which elect the members of the upper house of the national Parliament (Rajya Sabha), deprived Congress of its majority there as well, administering the coup de grace in a crushing humiliation for Rajiv Gandhi and his party.

Nothing is ever simple in Indian politics, and the implications of these events for the health of this resilient democracy are complex. In the short term, they are mainly positive. The recent elections purged the political system of a great many corrupt individuals and chased from office a national government and several state governments that were actively undermining political institutions. They have been replaced by a diverse set of successors that includes corrupt and illiberal elements, as well as forces for accommodation and reform. The election also removed the most immediate threat to Indian democracy-a coterie of statist advisors to Rajiv Gandhi who were half-inclined to abandon open politics in order to "protect" the nation-state and to clear the way for unencumbered technocratic leadership.

The long-term implications of the elections are more difficult to discern. Minority and coalition governments will probably become more common. This will generate greater political uncertainty and untidiness, and it may trigger some political instability and social turbulence. Some observers also fear that democratic politics may eventually be threatened by the rightist BJP, which made impressive gains.

It is quite possible, however, that recent events will strengthen democracy in India. The Gandhi dynasty lent an appearance of stability to the political scene, but it also permitted and often promoted institutional degeneration. Its demise may open the way to political realignments that will make the party systems at the state and especially the national level more representative of underlying social forces. The leaders of the parties now in power-especially those in minority and coalition governments-have good reason to be moderate and accommodating, to rebuild weakened institutions, and to create new ones that will restore damaged links between state and society. There are also significant impediments to major advances by rightist Hindus in the BJP, and even if they make further gains, their record and inclinations are not entirely illiberal.

The Role of the Congress Party

These developments must be understood in the context of India's democratic experience. Explanations for the initial emergence of democracy in India are highly complex. One may point to indigenous culture and social structures; to the nature of the British Raj and the formidable Indian response to it; and to the liberal norms and practices that...