India’s Electoral Politics

As the world’s largest democracy goes to the polls, this Backgrounder looks at the laws, major players, and issues, including economic reform, caste, and religion, that have shaped India’s politics.

April 14, 2009

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Elections in India, the world’s second-most populous country, evoke descriptions like ’spectacle’ or ’carnival,’ in part due to the overwhelming numbers that participate in the process. In this country of over a billion people, 714 million voters will decide who rules the world’s largest democracy for the next five years. In the 2004 elections, over 5,400 candidates from 230 political parties participated. Nearly the same number of candidates will compete for seats in parliament in 2009. Electoral candidates vie for votes by promising reforms, such as better governance, greater socioeconomic equity, and bolstered efforts at poverty alleviation. However, corrupt politicians with criminal records, caste- and religion-based politics, and allegations of vote-buying continue to mar the democratic process. Meanwhile, the coalition politics of the last two decades, while more inclusive, have resulted in giving outsized power to small parties that have used it to further their short-term agendas.

Indian historian Ramachandra Guha, in the book India after Gandhi, argues the country is only "50 percent a democracy," holding viable elections, but falling short when it comes to "the functioning of politicians and political institutions."

The Parliament

India’s parliamentary system is based on the Westminster model of constitutional democracy, a legacy of British colonial rule. The Parliament is comprised of a bicameral legislature: the Rajya Sabha, the 250-member upper house, where members are elected by state legislative assemblies (12 members are nominated by the president), and the Lok Sabha, the 543-member lower house directly elected by the people (with two additional seats reserved for Anglo Indians nominated by the president). In the Lok Sabha, voters elect candidates based on the electoral system where the person securing the largest number of votes in each district wins.

"There were few other competing ideologies that allowed people to make sense of their social circumstances in the way caste did." – Pratap Bhanu Mehta

To ensure political representation for historically marginalized groups in the lower house of the parliament, the Indian Constitution stipulates that each state reserve seats for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (formerly known as the untouchables, lowest in the country’s stratified social order) in proportion to their population in the state. This means only candidates belonging to these groups can contest elections in reserved constituencies. In the 2009 elections, eighty-four seats for candidates from scheduled castes and forty-seven for scheduled tribe members are reserved, 24 percent of the total seats in the parliament’s lower house. A pending bill seeking a 33 percent reservation for women in the parliament and state legislatures has been the subject of intense debate for over a decade.

The prime minister is the leader of the party or alliance that enjoys majority support in the lower house. If no single party or alliance has a majority, the leader of the largest single party or alliance is appointed prime minister and must subsequently secure a vote of confidence from the entire lower house.

The Parties

Currently, India has hundreds of political parties registered (PDF) with the election commission, and of these seven are registered as national parties. The Indian National Congress and its rival the Bharatiya Janata Party are the largest among them.

  • Indian National Congress (INC): Formed in 1885, the INC or Congress Party, as it is popularly called, dominated the national movement for ending British rule. Since India gained independence in 1947, the Congress Party has formed most of India’s governments. The party has been dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi family and currently is led by Sonia Gandhi, the wife of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the daughter-in-law of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Some analysts expect party leadership to eventually go to Sonia’s son Rahul. The party led the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) after the 2004 elections with Manmohan Singh as prime minister. Singh has been fielded as its 2009 prime ministerial candidate.

    "Religion is part and parcel of Indian political life." – Sumit Ganguly, professor of political science, Indiana University.

  • Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP): Formed in 1980 from the remnants of previous Hindu political organizations, BJP has emerged as the main rival to the Congress party. This Hindu nationalist party first formed the national government in 1996 but failure to glean majority support in the lower house led to its ouster in just a fortnight. It returned to power in 1998 and led the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee at the helm until 2004. The party’s prime ministerial candidate for 2009 elections, Lal Krishna Advani, has been one of its most prominent hardliners. Advani led the 1990s campaign to destroy a sixteenth-century mosque in northern India, resulting in nationwide communal riots between Hindus and Muslims that took hundreds of lives.
  • Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP): Formed in 1984 to represent the lower castes such as Scheduled Castes (also known as Dalits), Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes (OBCs), and the religious minorities, the party has been broadening its support base and fielding upper-caste and Muslim candidates in recent elections. Its leader Mayawati is the chief minister of the country’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh and has expressed ambitions to become a pan-Indian leader. Experts say Mayawati could play a crucial role in coalition negotiations and could even emerge as the country’s first Dalit prime minister at the head of a "Third Front" alliance of communist and left-wing parties.
  • Communist Party of India (CPI): A socialist party formed in 1925, it enjoys varying degrees of support in the states of West Bengal, Kerala, Tripura, Manipur, and Tamil Nadu, and is currently led by General Secretary A. B. Bardhan. The party was dealt a severe blow by a split in 1964 that resulted in the formation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). CPI, along with CPI (M), supported the UPA ruling coalition until July 2008 when the two parties withdrew their support over the government’s pursuit of a nuclear deal with the United States.
  • Communist Party of India (Marxist): CPI (M) emerged out of a division in the CPI in 1964 over ideological disagreements. Based on the principles of Marxism-Leninism, it has a strong presence in the states of West Bengal, Tripura, and Kerala. Its current general secretary is Prakash Karat.
  • Nationalist Congress Party (NCP): Primarily based in the state of Maharashtra, the party was formed in 1999 after some of the top Congress Party members broke away in protest at Sonia Gandhi’s leadership. The party is led by Sharad Pawar, who has served as Maharashtra’s chief minister and as agriculture minister under the Congress-led UPA that came to power in 2004.
  • Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD): Formed in 1997 by Laloo Prasad Yadav, who split from another regional party, the Janata Dal, RJD is primarily based in the north Indian state of Bihar. Yadav became chief minister of Bihar in 1990 but was forced to step down in 1997 on corruption charges. He returned to power as the federal minister of railways in 2004 as part of the UPA. RJD is another caste-based party that says it represents lower-caste Hindus and also enjoys the support of large numbers of Muslims in Bihar.

Besides the national parties, numerous regional movements play an important role in each state. While many of them have yet to make a name for themselves among the voters, experts say the influence of smaller regional parties has been growing steadily at a time when big national parties are declining. "Given that Indian states can be large and populous, the term ’regional’ is something of a misnomer," writes (BBC) Indian historian Mahesh Rangarajan. For instance, he notes Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state, has 190 million people, rivaling the population of Brazil.

CFR’s Senior Fellow Evan A. Feigenbaum, in a interview, said the trend "has vast implications for the ability of a party to push through a national program once it enters the government." Guha adds that fractious multiparty-coalition politics offers "no meaningful reform." Rangarajan writes that in general, these regional parties lean more toward rural than urban voters. "Though not anti-reform, they would see welfare as contingent on more public action, not market forces," he argues.

While result predictions for the Indian elections can be way off, most experts express little doubt that 2009 elections will bring in another coalition--Congress-led UPA, BJP-led NDA, or a Third Front alliance.

The Role of Caste

When universal adult suffrage offered all social groups, including previously disenfranchised ones, the right to vote, caste emerged as one of the most significant issues for political mobilization. This, political theorist Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes in the 2003 book The Burden of Democracy, was in part because caste was "an axis of domination and subordination in Indian society" and the state, by sanctioning categories of caste, provided the incentives to mobilize. But he argues it was also because "there were few other competing ideologies that allowed people to make sense of their social circumstances in the way caste did."

However, caste politics in the last three decades have been marked by desire for power rather than a substantial agenda for social reform. Parties like BSP and RJD, which came to power by mobilizing lower castes, have failed to offer much in the way of good governance or long-term social transformation. Instead, once some lower-caste groups have gained access to power, they have then sought to confine those privileges to their sub-caste. The problem, though, is not the salience of caste in Indian politics, but the failure to address its underlying causes and create new opportunities for marginalized groups, say some experts. "Unless the newly mobilized Dalit castes can be given access to the gains of the market economy, their prospects for social advancement remain dim," Mehta writes. Analysts note caste plays a lesser role in urban India, and with higher urbanization, its role in electoral politics might decline.

Playing the Religion Card

Many Indian historians date religion’s role in Indian politics back to the colonial period and the 1909 British policy of establishing separate electorates based on religion. However, in the 1980s, several events worked to bring religion to the forefront of electoral politics, say experts: rising Sikh fundamentalism followed by anti-Sikh riots after the 1984 assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi; Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s decision to support legislation that overturned a 1985 Supreme Court judgment to grant alimony to a Muslim woman, seen by many as capitulation to Muslim orthodoxy in an election year; and the rise of the BJP and its call to destroy the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. The dispute in Kashmir and several bloody Hindu-Muslim flare-ups in the last two decades have further divided people along religious lines.

Today, both the Hindus and the country’s 170 million Muslims, the largest minority group, are courted energetically by political parties. "Religion is part and parcel of Indian political life," says Sumit Ganguly, a professor of political science at Indiana University. He says the BJP is the principal offender with its Hindutva agenda. But Congress is not free of culpability either, he argues. Regional actors such as Maharashtra’s Shiv Sena further exploit religion to court voters. Ganguly says lack of leadership in upper echelons of the Muslim community exacerbates the problem.

The Indian electorate has turned the standard law of political participation on its head.

While it is clear that religion plays a significant role, it is less clear how it translates into voting behavior. "Politically speaking, there is no single unified Muslim community in India," writes Yogendra Yadav (BBC), a political scientist who designed and coordinated the National Election Studies, the largest series of academic surveys of the Indian electorate, from 1996 to 2004. He argues that "Muslims are fragmented along the lines of religion, sect, caste, and community." Ganguly says economic issues are also intertwined with issues of religion and caste. Indian Muslims, who experience high poverty rates, voted for Congress for decades because of its secular platform and promised reforms. Unlike most minorities in most democracies around the world, Indian Muslims, Yadav says, have not voted for Muslim parties. Nor do they vote en bloc, "like, say, the black vote in the United States for the Democratic Party or the UK’s ethnic minorities who largely vote for the Labor Party," he says.

Democratic Politics and Economic Reform

The Indian electorate has turned the standard law of political participation on its head, say experts. In India, the lower castes vote more than the upper castes, and the poor vote as much or more often than the rich. Similarly, the illiterate cast ballots more often than the educated, and rural voters more than urban populations. India’s universal suffrage long preceded transition to a modern industrialized economy, Ashutosh Varshney, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2007. And in this low-income democracy, these large numbers of voters, most concerned with their basic needs and livelihoods, have made economic issues an important part of the debate.

The government’s performance on economic issues, especially reform, since India moved toward economic liberalization in 1991, has become important to electoral politics. Varshney argues that "the economic reforms undertaken thus far have not been those that would directly affect the lives of India’s poor masses, and this has fed their resentment against the reforms." As this Backgrounder points out, despite India’s 7.5 percent average annual growth rate since 1991, there is increasing rural-urban, sector-based, and income inequalities, and benefits from growth have failed to trickle down to significant segments of the population. Varshney says "political leaders will continue to find it extremely difficult to stake their political fortunes on economic reforms that are expected to cause substantial short-term dislocations and are likely to produce rewards only in the long term."

Voters Seek Accountability

High levels of corruption and poor governance have led to immense civil society mobilization seeking greater accountability from political candidates and reform of the electoral process. In 2004 general elections, candidates were required to disclose their assets and criminal records for the first time under new rules pushed for by ordinary citizens. In the 2004 election, the disclosures seemed to have little impact on the increasing criminalization of politics: 128 of the 543 winners had faced criminal charges (Newsweek), including eighty-four cases of murder, seventeen cases of robbery, and twenty-eight cases of theft and extortion.

Ahead of the 2009 elections, a nationwide campaign, led by more than a thousand NGOs and citizen groups working on electoral reforms, sought more transparency. Primary among their demands were barring candidates with criminal charges, the voters’ right to reject all the candidates through a "none of the above" option on the ballot paper, and greater transparency and regulation of funding of political parties.