This article will attempt to survey the four-phase evolution of the Indian party system over the past 75 years from one-party dominance for four decades at the national level, but which includes a substantially parallel phase of the rise of regional parties at the State level, to a quarter-century of hung Parliaments and coalition and minority governments, to the emergence of a new phase of one-party dominance since 2014. It will attempt to outline the driving forces of the evolution.
A time of Congress majorities
The Indian party system has evolved through the following four phases. The first phase, 1952-67, consisted of the first four general elections of 1952, 1957, 1962 and 1967 with which most State Assembly elections coincided. It was characterised by comfortable majorities — two-thirds majorities of seats in the first three elections — won by the Congress based on pluralities of 44-48% votes in the first three of these against a fragmented and disunited opposition. The same pattern was repeated simultaneously in nearly all the States. However, in 1967 though the Congress won a majority with just over 40% of the votes, and saw a consolidation of opposition parties from then onwards in more and more States.
The second phase, 1967-89, saw the consolidation of the opposition vote behind some single major opposition party or coalition, State by State, for both the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, particularly the latter, leading increasingly to the bipolarisation of State-level party systems into one of the following patterns: a two-party system, one party versus a coalition, or two opposed coalitions, with third and lesser parties playing a minor role. This bipolarisation of State-level party systems, thus strengthening a variety of opposition parties across States, was the driving force of the fragmentation of the Congress-dominated national party system.
However, this bipolarisation trend was one of multiple bipolarities — the Congress versus the Bharatiya Jan Sangh/Bharatiya Janata Party (BJS/BJP) in some States (Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi) from 1967, the Congress versus the Left in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, the Congress versus a regional party in Tamil Nadu and Punjab from 1967, in Andhra Pradesh from 1984, in Assam from 1985, to name prominent cases.
By 1989, the classic Congress system of hegemonic dominance against a fragmented opposition at the State level remained in place only in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Odisha. However, despite bipolarisation and the rise of a range of national (BJP, Left) and regional opposition parties in a range of States – and regional and Left parties forming governments in such States — the Congress continued to win majorities based on vote share pluralities in general elections during this phase except for the 1989 election (and except for the exceptional, post-Emergency 1977 election when the Janata Party, a merger of five opposition parties, won a Congress-like victory in reverse, i.e. a majority based on a vote share plurality).
This process was in essence the playing out of Duvergerian dynamics in India’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system (technically, in a single-member constituency, simple plurality system) in a federal polity in which significant powers to the States provided incentives to form parties at the State level for the capture of power at that level. To that, one can add linguistic and cultural identities as mobilisers given the linguistic reorganisation of States from 1956. French political scientist Maurice Duverger’s “law” proposed that in an FPTP system voters would not waste their votes on third and lesser parties which did not have a realistic chance of winning and would typically be underrepresented in terms of seats compared to votes. They would vote strategically for the party that seemed to be capable of defeating their least liked party. Such voting behaviour would over time lead to a two-party system by reducing third and lesser parties to relative insignificance in votes and more so in seats. Duverger’s argument was intended for the constituency level but is applicable at the State level in federal polities as such elections are also won by having at least a plurality of votes for the winning party (with rare exceptions like, for example, the Madhya Pradesh Assembly election in 2018 won by the Congress though the BJP was a whisker ahead in vote share). Duvergerian dynamics from 1967 onwards led over time to bipolar, if not precisely two-party, systems in State after State as opposition votes tended to consolidate behind the most credible challenger to the Congress.
The third phase, 1989-2014, particularly 1996-2014, was one of no single party getting a majority and consequently of coalition and/or minority governments (coalitions from 1996 to 2014 were minority coalitions dependent on outside support) at the Centre with major participation by regional parties both in governing coalitions directly and as external supporters. During this phase, the Duvergerian dynamic of bipolarisation at the State level continued to play itself out in more and more States such that almost all except notably U.P. became bipolar party systems by 2014. However, in this phase the Congress vote share plurality, which continued in all elections from 1989 to 2009, no longer converted into a majority of seats, leading to the formation of non-single party majority governments throughout this 25-year phase.
The Congress’s decline, BJP’s rise
The post-1989 period saw the emergence and playing out of three megatrends. First, the jagged decline of the Congress vote share from just under 40% in 1989 to just under 20% in 2014 and 2019, with partial recoveries in 2004 and 2009, creating space for the growth of regional parties and the BJP. Second, the jagged rise of the BJP vote share from 11% in 1989 to 25% in 1998 followed by a dip to 19% in 2009 to a steep jump to 31% in 2014 and 37% in 2019, almost where the Congress was in 1989.
The BJP expanded across States by skilful playing of the pre-electoral coalition game, enabling it to be allotted more and more seats to contest in alliance, and eating into the base of existing parties and emerging from a third party status to being one of the two leading parties in more and more States with bipolar party systems. Third, the large presence of non-Congress and non-BJP parties, which are overwhelmingly single-State regional parties, with an aggregate share ranging from 44% to 53% throughout this period, indicating great political diversity across States. In fact, the rise of regional parties is even more pronounced given that the Left, which is included in this broadly third-party category, declined over this period, particularly after 2004.
The fourth phase in the evolution of the party system at the national level is the new BJP-led one-party dominant system that has emerged since 2014, with the BJP, helped by pre-electoral coalitions, winning seat majorities of 282 and 303 seats, respectively, in 2014 and 2019, based on 31% and 37% vote share, the 2014 figure being the highest vote-to-seat conversion ratio of 1.65 (52% seats for 31% votes) in any Indian election to date.
This new one-party dominance of the BJP has not yet reached the level of hegemony enjoyed by the Congress in its four-decade (except for the Janata Party period) dominance by three measures. First, the BJP has not crossed the 40% vote share mark which the Congress never fell below till 1989 with the exception of 1977. Second, the BJP’s dominance is not yet the case in almost all States unlike the Congress in its heyday, never having won in four southern and two eastern States and one northwestern State on its own. Third, the BJP majorities in 2014 and 2019 were partly dependent on vote transfers from pre-electoral allies in key States (of the 303 seats it won in 2019, 42 were from Maharashtra, Bihar and Punjab, fought in alliance with key partner parties).
Question for 2024
Will the BJP increase its vote and seat shares to further consolidate its hegemony and approach the kind of hegemony the Congress enjoyed in its heyday? This will depend on consolidating in its north, central and western, and more recently, northeastern State strongholds and also being able to make further inroads into the south and east to win pluralities in State and parliamentary elections either by autonomously increasing its base and/or by attracting legislators and their support bases from other parties one way or another. It will also depend on opposition consolidation or the lack thereof in State after State. We will have to wait another two years for the results of the strategies of both the ruling and opposition parties.
E. Sridharan is at the University of Pennsylvania Institute for the Advanced Study of India