A Study of the Political Dominance of Indian National Congress and Bhartiya Janta Party
In the initial years after independence, the dominance of the Congress in the political arena is reflected clearly by the results of the first general elections in 1951-52. The Congress won a staggering 364 out of 489 seats and received 44.99% of the total vote share. Pt. Nehru was elected as the first prime minister of independent India, and he retained the position till his death in 1964. Meanwhile, the Congress supremacy in the second and third general elections was continued with 47% and 45.39% vote shares respectively. Nehru was succeeded by Lal Bahadur Shashtri, who occupied the prime minister’s office till 1966, and he was in turn succeeded by Pt. Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi. Indira Gandhi carried the baton of the Congress quite successfully and won the 1967 and 1971 general elections with relative dominance (the vote share being 40.91 and 53.14% respectively). The Congress rule for the first time was ended in the 1977 elections, which were held after the emergency, and the Congress lost around 200 seats including Mrs. Gandhi’s constituency. Though the Congress got 53% vote share in the 1984 elections, which were held after Indira Gandhi’s death, it never quite dominated the Indian political arena again as it did previously. During this period, the Congress not only dominated the general elections, but their government held a majority in the states as well. Congress has been unsuccessful in achieving a similar dominion again.
The BJP has a story of its own. Being formed in 1980 (after almost 95 years of Congress’s existence), it started its run with 2 MPs being selected for the house in 1984 general elections. BJP held power for a full tenure, for the first time, as a part of the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) government during 1999-2004, under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. But it started dominating the arena of Indian politics after 2014, under the leadership of Narendra Modi. It single-handedly attained the majority in the 2014 elections (only the second party to achieve this after Congress), and slowly started to dominate the state elections as well. Currently, it holds government in 22 states (out of the total 29 states), and is currently the biggest political player in India.
1.1) The Story and analysis of the Congress Domination
As mentioned in the introduction, the Congress dominated the first five general elections under Pt. Nehru and Indira Gandhi. The vote share received by the Congress and the number of seats won, reflect the fact that the opposition parties weren’t able to match up tothe Congress victory. In fact, Congress lost the first general election after almost 25 years of continuous rule. The following chart provides the statistical data substantiating the Congress dominance in the first five general elections –
|Year||Percentage Vote Share||No. of seats won|
|1951-52||44.99%||364 (out of 489)|
In spite of the fact that the Congress ruled the center continuously for two and a half decades, the major reason behind their political domination was their success in the state assembly elections. In Indian politics, state elections play a vital role in extending the party’s control over state institutions, as well as its popularity amongst the masses. Congress, in fact, enjoyed the people’s support both at the center and the state level. For instance, at a point during Indira Gandhi’s government, Congress ruled 18 out of the 28 states in India. Therefore, the political domination of the Congress is evident during its 25 years of the continuous rule at the center.
The reason behind such level of political domination has several facets. To begin with, one must first look at the role played by Congress in India’s independence as the institutional face of a new India. Congress, with its charismatic leaders who led the nationalist and the freedom movement in India, was the major force behind the independence of India. During the freedom struggle, leaders like Nehru, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad and many others educated the masses on what an independent India would be like. So in the first general elections, the people voted for the Congress, mostly because of its role in the freedom struggle and its great leaders who inspired the people during the struggle. But in the upcoming elections, the factors behind the success of Congress are more rooted in its party structure, its popular leaders, and its policies.
The popularity of the Congress is deeply linked to its structure of party organization. It had a federal model of party organization, with different factions and tiers at the state and the district level. Rajni Kothari has written extensively about this ‘Congress system‘ in India. Kothari explains that these various levels of the party (at the center. State, district, etc.) had ‘link men’ between them, and they along with the incumbent members formed a significant part of the party. Thus, the Congress party had a deeply institutionalized federal character, which reaped two major benefits for the Congress – first, it strengthened the party core which helped in wider political mobilizations; and secondly it brought voices from outside the party, within its ambit, thus not allowing the opposition party to grow. It changed the perception and approachability of the Congress in eyes of the masses. To quote Kothari, “….In this way, the party representing a historical consensus also continues to represent the current consensus”. Hence for the time under the leadership of Nehru, Congress acted both as the ruling party and the opposition party due to its immense reach. It ultimately helped the Congress to remain in power in not only the Nehruvian phase but under Indira Gandhi as well.
Apart from the organized party structure, Congress derived a lot of political benefits (in terms of elections won and people influenced) from the popular images of Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Both these leaders during their tenure took many policy decisions, highlighting their decisive authority, which had a lot of impact on the Indian masses; especially Nehru’s socialism and the commitment towards industrial growth led to a fairly good growth trajectory of the country and the people acknowledged this by electing him as their prime minister, three consecutive times. Indira Gandhi, during her own tenure, took many radical steps like nationalization of banks, the emergency and many more. These decisions reflected her adamant personality, which led to the creation of an image of a powerful ruler in the minds of the people. The stance to support the creation of Bangladesh further enhanced her image with the polity, which materialized in huge electoral victories.
Therefore, a highly inclusive and institutionalized party system, popular charismatic leaders, and some far-reaching policies along with some popular measures were some of the major causes of the Congress domination from 1951-52 to 1977.
1.2) The Dream run of the BJP and the story behind it
After 10 years of the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) coalition government, led by the Congress, there was strong anti-incumbency against the ruling government. The latter part of the UPA rule was scarred with a plethora of scams and administrative failures, which paved the way for the rise of Narendra Modi and the BJP. Riding on an election campaign full of promises of holistic development, the BJP single-handedly won a majority in the Lok Sabha in the 15th general elections. The NDA led by the BJP, received 38.5 % of the vote share (BJP accounting for 31% alone) and won 336 seats. It was after 30 years, that a party had achieved absolute majority of its own. Since then, the BJP led by Narendra Modi (who is the face of the party in almost every election) and Amit Shah (the Party President of the BJP) have dominated the political scenario of India. During the four years of their rule in the center, the BJP has managed to increase their popularity amongst the masses at the ground level, and their victories in the state assembly and municipal elections in different regions of the country are a solid testimony to it. Today, the BJP rules 22 out of the 29 states in the country and has come a long way since its beginnings in the 1980s.
Narendra Modi, three times chief minister of Gujarat, entered the national politics as a man who had executed the famed Gujarat model of development. His election speeches reiterated the need of a corruption free, and committed government which could restrict the vicious circles of corruption. He continuously restated his commitment to the service of the people of India and gave people hope for ‘better days’ in future by good governance and development. These claims and promises led to the development of faith and belief in him, in the hearts of the masses. This further led to the immense popularity of his campaign and his personality, which was evident with the large number of people who reportedly thronged his rallies to listen to him. Thus Modi’s charisma and ambition has been playing a vital role in BJPs continued success.
Modi’s election fervor of 2014 continues in various state elections and has delivered results in favor of his party. Prashant Jha, author of ‘How the BJP wins: Inside India’s greatest Election Machine’ remarks “It is striking that three years into his term, there is no anti-incumbency against Narendra Modi. In fact, power has only added to his appeal.”. But in a multilayered society like India which is full of diversity, only personality cults don’t win leaders elections. However, a reflection of statistics, shows that the BJP has been winning most of the elections, not only at the center and state level, but at panchayat level as well.
The main reason behind such a success is how BJP, through its local institutions, has grasped the grass root problems and addressed it. With meticulous electoral planning, they have created a booth level strategy to win the voter’s attention. The Sangh Parivar, consisting of RSS (Rashtriya Svyamsevak Sangh) and its allies have provided the base level manpower and logistical support for the BJP throughout different state elections. The recent Tripura state election is a great example of it, where the RSS machinery worked along with the local BJP to build a mandate for the party. Professor Hilal Ahmed calls it as ‘BJPs professionalism’ and labels it as a major factor behind their prolonged success.
After the above reasons, the other most important factor behind BJPs success has been its social engineering. This social engineering includes polarizing different groups together and making it their vote bank. Through their election machinery, consisting of various local leaders, the BJP has been able to sway large chunks of the Hindu population divided by castes, into their favor. This has led to their victory in states like Uttar Pradesh, where there is a largely divided Hindu population, with the Muslims in minority.
Prashant Jha has very aptly described this whole process in his above-mentioned book. To quote him,“ When a charismatic national leader, a powerful strategist (referring to Amit Shah), astute social alliances, a formidable organizational structure, religion and a ruthlessly ambitious, pragmatic and flexible culture merge; politics and democracy can change irrevocably and in an unanticipated way”. Jha has made a very tall claim in the above statement, but the influence of BJP in country’s politics, through its decisions and promotion of the nationalism, can’t be denied.
2.1) The Similarities
The Congress under Nehru and Indira, and the BJP under Modi- both have benefitted hugely from its exemplary leadership. These three personalities can be termed at the greatest leaders of their times, with a level of popularity which is hard to surpass. Therefore, the most common factor among the dominion of both the giants of Indian politics, is their star leadership. This leadership enables them to became the face of their party, to the extent that elections were (and are) fought solely under their names. Their level of apparent charisma, led to these several ‘waves’ (Modi wave, Indira wave etc) in the elections, which swayed the votes in their favor. However, Modi has more in common with Indira than with Nehru. Both were disliked by their respective parties at some point of time (eg: the split of Congress and Modi being told to follow ‘Raj-dharma’ by Vajpayee in 2002). Their ways of working is similar too, believing more in direct action rather than legislative process. This is evident from the way Modi took the decision of demonetization and Indira imposed the Emergency. But despite their mode of action was, the popularity and the charisma of Nehru, Indira and Modi have a big role to play in the political dominance of their respective parties.
Secondly, from the statistical point of view, the level of political dominance of both these parties signal towards the existence of a ‘one-party dominant politics’ in their respective times. For instance, during the 1952 general elections the second largest party was CPI (Communist Party of India) with 16 seats; and in the 2014 elections, the second largest party-Congress-had only 44 seats in the house. Thus, the weakness of the opposition is a common factor. In fact, the success of both the BJP and the Congress isn’t limited to the general elections. Currently (as mentioned earlier), BJP is in the government of 22 states; and during hay days of Indira’s rule, Congress governed 18 out of 28 states. Both these parties are similar in the terms of their wide presence on the ground level as well. The Congress dominated the local politics through its highly institutionalized and politically charged support groups. The BJP today is also a major political power at the municipal and panchayat level across the country, and the recent victory in the municipal elections of UP is a testimony to this claim. These examples clearly show some level of similarity between the one-party dominance of the Congress during the period between the 1950s to the early and middle 1970s, and the BJP today.
2.2) The Differences
Rajni Kothari in his book ‘Politics In India’ talks about the existence of a federal ‘Congress system’ during the rule of Nehru and Indira, as mentioned earlier. So, if we compare this ‘Congress system’ with the current ‘BJP system’, we will find that these systems are different from each other in many aspects. Firstly, the congress system resembles a federal arrangement of various tiers of government, in which every tier has its own power and capacities; whereas in the BJP system, local level institutions exist, but the system is highly controlled from the center which makes it more exclusive as compared to the Congress system. For example : the local district head of the Congress committee has the power to decide the party’s strategy for campaigning; but in case of the BJP district head, the strategy is already decided at the higher level (mostly from BJP headquarters in New Delhi) and he or she has to only execute those strategies. Both these systems were highly successful (BJP’s system is still functioning well) in their respective contexts.
The second difference lies in the context of the domination. The Congress dominated in the initial years after independence, and it already had a previous advantage due toIndia’s freedom struggle. Professor Hilal Ahmed, in his article, remarks “the Congress system evolved in the 1950-70 period when competitive electoral politics was taking a decisive shape.” Moreover, the domination of the BJP comes in an era when the Congress lacks solid central leadership, and is bogged down by corruption and failed administration. It utilized these defects of the modern day Congress, and created a solid base for its political domination, which the polity is witness to today. In the same article, Prof. Ahmed explains how no party today adheres to a particular ideology, which is quite different from the politics of 1950s-60s. To quote him, “the adherence to ideology is replaced by a new political wisdom- winnability”. This seems to be quite viable as of today; parties tend to create vote banks by polarizing masses. Professor Ahmed calls it ‘professionalization of electoral competition’, and BJP has definitely mastered it better than any party today.
2.3) The Effects Of One Party Dominance and what it Entails
Despite establishing all the analyses and comparisons of the dominance of the parties, the paper will remain incomplete if it does not discuss effects and repercussions (if there are any) of the one-party dominance.
In the case of Congress, the one-party dominance helped the state institutions to function more efficiently as there was not a legislative hindrance in policymaking and execution. It actually benefitted a newly formed nation in many ways and helped the leadership of the time to propel the infantile nation into adulthood. But, rather in today’s time, it seems more of a vulnerability of the democratic system rather than strength. It is because of the fact, that the level of political dominance (or rather political hegemony) which the BJP exercises today, gives it immense power and authority. In today’s India, which needs more infrastructural development and welfare schemes, it can lead to governments being more authoritarian. It was a safe play during the initial years after independence, as the development had to start from scratch. But in the current times, we have a lot of stakes in terms of not only policies but existing conditions of the country as well. Political dominance is a recipe for the despotic and authoritarian rule. However, the political dominance of any party, neither today nor in future, should ever curtail democratic steps and rules.
The Congress dominated in the 1950s and continued to dominate the next one and a half decades as well. The BJP in its four years of power at the center has become the largest party of India; and has even surpassed the level of dominance of the Congress in many aspects. These two cases are the trademark of ‘one-party dominance’ in India, which was talked about in detail by Rajni Kothari. Political processes and their outcomes in complex societies with the multiparty system is highly unpredictable. So it is not prudent to believe that the one-party dominance will be seen in the future also. However, the handling of political power is a responsibility and it needs to be handled with utmost respect, accountability, and democratic ethics.
In spite of the fact that some similarities are there between the dominance of both the parties in statistical terms; but the context and cause of the dominance, in general, shows a stark difference. At one place where the Congress dominated through its highly institutionalized character and historical consensus, the BJP dominates the politics today through its immensely ‘professional’ political campaigns and charismatic leadership. But the system of one-party dominance can also be the test grounds for an authoritarian regime, and India experienced it during the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi. Any kind of political power entails a sense of responsibility, and such high level of political dominance (as seen in the case of BJP today and the Congress in the past) demands an even higher commitment to democracy and the Constitution of India. –