The attributes of the ‘third electoral system’

Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar

Triggered by the decline of the Congress in the 1990s, the third electoral system — marked among other things by a proliferation of parties and a democratic upsurgein political participation — continues to shape politics at the State and national levels.

Do we still live under the same ‘electoral system’ as was experienced in much of the 1990s and in 2004 too? The formation of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and later its success in running a coalition government after the 1999 elections for a full term gave rise to an expectation of bipolarity. This development was seen as a move away from the multi-polar politics thrown up by the late 1980s. The formation of a government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1998 and yet again in 1999 produced a new centre — the BJP — with reference to which and against which strategies were now being charted by many other political parties. The classic base of the ‘third force’ — opposition to Congress and the BJP — became shaky and many of the third force players chose either opposition to the BJP or opposition to the Congress as the operative basis of their political strategies.

After 2004, the Congress successfully entered the arena of coalition politics by forming the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), then winning over the Left to extend its support, and finally in withstanding the withdrawal of support by the Left by winning over new coalition partners to support it in the Lok Sabha. These developments of the last decade underlined the possibilities of an emerging and stable bipolarity and squeezed out the third force from any effective role at the national level. Hence, there is a need to revisit the main arguments of the ‘third electoral system.’ Besides, many of the transformative dimensions of the third electoral system as originally foreseen and projected seem to be weakening. A review of some of the key attributes of the third electoral system helps us analyse the implications of the recent electoral trends for the party system and democratic polity.

The third electoral system was triggered by and manifested itself in the sudden decline of the Congress. The party’s electoral fortunes plummeted in the 1990s when it sunk below the threshold of viability in many States. In hindsight, we can say that this decline was not a transition to its eventual demise but a shift in its status from being a system-defining party to being the largest player in a differentiated party system.

Although the Congress has not staged a recovery in these four big States, it has managed to exist as a sub-optimal but evenly spread party in Uttar Pradesh and retained its relevance as a valuable partner in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. More importantly, the Congress has managed to escape this fate in many other States like Haryana, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Orissa, and Assam where it faced similar prospects; the implosion and disunity of third front formations have come to the rescue of the Congress. The decline of the Congress has ensured that there is no overwhelming national power to interfere with the autonomy of State politics. The party has learnt to respect this autonomy so as to remain relevant.

The second attribute of this electoral system was proliferation in political parties. In this respect the 1990s witnessed a rapid shift leading to a sudden rise in the number of parties with an effective presence. This led to an impression of political fragmentation and chaos. In the second decade (since 1999), the pace of expansion has gone down but the trend is still towards further expansion. As States shift from one-party dominance, they have taken many routes. In the 1990s, it seemed that the system was moving towards ‘multiple bipolarity’, a bipolar competition between different pairs across different States. The next decade has witnessed a shift in this respect, as many States like Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Karnataka, Jammu and Kashmir, and now perhaps Delhi have moved away from bipolarity or potential bipolarity. This continuing proliferation of parties makes the translation of State-level political preferences into national choices more complex than before.

The third major attribute of the system, a democratic upsurge in electoral participation, appears to be reaching a point of saturation. While the overall turnout level in Assembly elections has touched 70 per cent in the latest round, up from around 60 per cent a decade ago, this period also witnessed a substantial narrowing of the gender gap in voter turnout and an upsurge in the turnout among Dalits and adivasis, though not necessarily the Muslims and the very poor. As the principal site of participatory upsurge, political contestation at the State level has continued to retain vitality in the present decade (since 2000).

The participatory upsurge in the early phase of the third electoral system was linked to a very high level of individual and aggregate volatility, resulting in a routine defeat for the incumbent party. Since then, the volatility has come down partly because the party system has gone through a substantial reconfiguration and is now stabilising, and also because State governments have recovered from the fiscal crisis that affected them in the 1990s. We have not yet seen its fallout for national politics, but it would be reasonable to expect that the tendency for State governments past their mid-terms to do badly in the national elections would also come down.

The fifth attribute, the creation and articulation of caste blocs in electoral politics, has undergone a subtle but crucial change since the beginning of the third electoral system. While popular commentaries on politics continue to notice politics of caste-based vote banks, the content of caste politics has undergone a change. Political articulation of dominant castes has led to the search for political coalition and inclusion of hitherto excluded areas and smaller castes. Political mobilisation has moved beyond big blocs like the Other Backwards Castes (OBCs) or the Scheduled Castes (SCs). Lower OBCs, maha-Dalits, and Pasmanda Muslims are beginning to acquire a political clout. Class politics is entering directly in post-liberalisation urban areas and indirectly in rural India. All in all, the process of redrawing of politically relevant social cleavages that began with the reconfiguration of the party system has not yet ended and the new cleavages have not yet frozen.

Finally, the process of ideological convergence inaugurated in this era has continued further. If anything, the areas of convergence have expanded from economic and foreign policy to now include national security. At least formally, there is a political consensus on policies of social justice, and on an informal plane there is a growing convergence on the minority question and on overlooking of environmental concerns. This growing ideological convergence has meant that the transformative potential of the third electoral system has been tamed and domesticated.

The Lok Sabha elections of 2004 marked the end of transformative potential of the third electoral system, yet its systemic attributes are very much in place and continue to shape political contestation at the state and national levels. The third electoral system is not a half-way house or a transitional institutional form, a prelude to something else. Already two decades old, the format of competitive politics inaugurated by the third electoral system could persist for a fairly long period.

If the 1990s drew our attention to the possibilities of social transformation through political reconfiguration within competitive politics in a multi-party framework, the present decade alerts us to the tendency within that same framework to tame the democratic upsurge and contain the transformative potential of competitive politics. This presents us with multiple paradoxes: as the frequency of accountability goes up, the scope of accountability gets narrower than before; as the possibility of stable parliamentary majority recedes, it leads to greater stability of policies that can be kept out of democratic framework; the higher the suspense over who would eventually form the government, the lesser it matters.

(This excerpt is from Electoral Politics in India: Lok Sabha Elections in 2004 and Beyond edited by Sandeep Shastri, K.C. Suri and Yogendra Yadav. Published by Oxford University Press, the book will shortly be in the bookstands.)

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