Essay on the Nature of Party System in India


“Party government”, said Bagehot, “is the vital principle of representative government”. The political parties are not usually of the government. “They are below or behind: they do most of their work in the twilight zone of the politics.

They link the sovereign people to the legislature and the executive. In fact the working of any system of representative government is in large measure determined by the nature of the political parties which operate it.”


Development of Thought:

To understand the nature of, system in any society, it is necessary to keep in mind that party originates in the patterns of cleavage and alignment among social forces Different relationships among social forces and different sequences in the development of cleavages among them give rise to different types of party systems.

Given this intimate linkage between the nature of social cleavages and the types of party system, it is quite natural that the transformation of latent socio- economic cleavages into manifest political conflicts would profoundly influence the development of the party system in India.

The nature of Indian party system, therefore, can only be understood in the context of its environment and expected role.



In short, only in a formal democracy, parties attain significance. The parties have sprung up to turn social thought into political action.

Political parties are the indispensable links between the people and the representative machinery of government. In a democracy they are the vehicles through which individuals and groups work to secure political power and. if successful, to exercise that power.

They have a no less significant function when in opposition, of scrutinizing the use of power and forcing the government con­stantly to justify its policies and actions. Also any democratic political system requires peoples’ support for government programmers and policies, and this support can be mobilized by a political party.


Further a liberal democratic government operates in a milieu of challenges and opposition and political part- plays a crucial role to meet challenges of opposition.

Yet the concept of political party has changed from age to age. While Burke, for instance, defined it as a body, of men united for the purpose of promoting by their joint endeavors the public interest, upon some principle on which they are all agreed; Laski viewed it as art organization which seeks determine the economic constitution of the State.

There are good reasons why political parties are so hard to define. Their genesis is difficult to disentail’ from the evolution of the modern society and state, the role of a party changes substantially as political conditions in a country change.

For instance in the West, political parties are thought of primarily as representative instruments, a means of ensuring peaceful and regular alternation of government through the succession of leaders to public office.


These act as instruments of articulation and canalization of diverse and confused demands of multiple and competing social groups. But in developing societies the parties are rarely limited to the more or less passive role of transmitting private wants to the makers of public policies.

Nor are they aggregative devices, collecting varying expressions of want, belief, and outlook in some faithful manner. Quite the contrary, the politi­cal parties of a developing society are expected to play an active entrepreneurial role in the formation of new ideas, in the establishment of a network of commu­nication for those ideas, and in the linking of the public and the leadership in such a way that power is generated, mobilized and directed.

The contemporary party system in India developed originally in the context of the struggle for freedom and since 1950 within the framework of a parliamentary government; both these environments have exerted their influence on the present character and structure of the political parties.

The context of the struggle for freedom tells that the evolution of parties in India has been on a different footing than those of Western democracies. In India, unlike the West, social and economic change did not precede political development.


Since the growth of science and technology was slow and the development of the country’s economy poor and uneven, society as a whole remained unmodernized. The elite commit­ment to modernity, involving a radical change in the traditional value system and social relationships, therefore, was weak and ambivalent.

The Indian situation thus provided hardly any ground for the development of the party system .from within. Like capitalism, therefore, the development of party system also pro­ceeded from an application of external stimuli. The British provided it as a part of an historical process.

According to Thomas Hodgkin, up to a point the colonial situation tends to promote one party dominance. Because the ending of the status of subordination is an overriding aim, the nationalist movement is liable to assume the form of a dominant mass party symbolizing the aspirations of the nascent nation.

This Party usually strives to be all things to everyone. Its leaders tend to assume that they and their party properly incarnate all the legitimate interests of the society.


However, the unity of the national party is sometimes an illusion. For it is not a body of people with a common approach to social problems but a coalition of special interests, each with its own particular grievance against the colonial regime.

The superficiality of the atmosphere of consensus created by the nation­alist movement becomes more apparent as the prospects of political autonomy Improves.

As each interest group man oeuvres to consolidate its influence, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep up the semblance of unity, for increase in influence for one of these groups often implies loss of influence for another.

In this context in specific Indian conditions after independence although the Indian National Congress became a party, it was still entirely different from an ordinary party uniting members who believe in the same ideals and have the same objectives.

The party retained the character of the nationalist movement in seeking to balance and accommodate social and ideological diversity within an all-embracing, representative structure- claiming sole legitimacy as the nation­alist party, the Congress sought to resolve or avoid internal conflict balance interests, and blur ideological distinctions in its search for consensus.

Moreover in consolidating its power after independence it sought to achieve a national consensus through the accommodation and absorption of dominant social ele­ments that had kept aloof from the nationalist movement. Traditional caste and village leaders, landlords and businessmen made their way into the Congress.

Thus, the Congress, which functioned as a broad-based nationalist move­ment before independence, transformed itself into the dominant political party of the nation.

Although a number of opposition parties came into existence, it was recognized that the Congress was the chief party representing a historical con­sensus and enjoying in continuing basis of support and trust.

The observers of Indian politics like Morris Jones, therefore described the Indian system as a system of “one party’ dominance,” whereas writers like Rajni Kothari went to the extent of calling it the “Congress System.”

This so-called one-party dominance or Congress system was, no doubt, a competitive party system. But in this the competing parties played rather dissimi­lar roles. According to Rajni Kothari, it consisted of a party of consensus and parties of pressure.

The latter functioned on the margin and indeed, the concept of a margin of pressure was of great importance in that system. Inside the margin were various functions within the party of consensus. Outside the margin were several opposition groups and parties, dissident groups from the ruling party, and other interest groups and important individuals.

These groups outside the margin did not constitute alternatives to the ruling party. Their role was to constantly pressurize, criticize, censure and influence it by influencing opinion and interests inside the margin and above all, exert a latent threat that if the ruling group strays away too far from the balance of effective public opinion, and if the factional system within it is not mobilized to restore the balance.

It will be displaced from power by the opposition groups. Both the idea of an inbuilt corrective through factionalism within the ruling party, and the idea of a latent threat from outside the margin of pressure were necessary parts of one party dominance system

The commentators who have tried to analyze the party system particularly going down to state and local level, like Paul Brass, opine that the Congress system was never a single one-party. Prominence system. Rather it consisted of a national party system with links to the states and seventeen regional multi-party system in which the Congress was dominant.

Each multi-party system has its own distinctive features, despite a common pattern of Congress dominance. This became particularly clear in the Fourth General Elections in 1967.

In spite of the Congress domination in 1960s, politicization of new recruits and groups into the political process through both electoral and other processes had been giving rise to the development of new and differentiated identities and patterns of political cleavages.

In the context of increasing class conflict and at a time when many vital social problems remained to be solved, the struggle within a number of opposition parties also intensified as they sought for ways out of the mounting socio-political crisis.

Therefore, on the one hand the Congress started losing its position as the one party of the Indian bourgeoisie as well as representing common man’s aspirations and on the other, new political groups was formed.

In these circumstances, the election results of 1967 were dramatic. On the one hand the Congress failed to secure majorities in eight states, and its majority at the Centre was reduced to a narrow margin of 54 per cent. On the other hand the voters did not (or could not), except in three states, and give a clear indication of their preference.

There was neither a viable alternative to the Congress nor a clear-cut polarization of political forces. Gains were registered by both forces of right and the left. The highly fragmented opposition found an opportunity to come to power through coalitions.

The various united front’s were at least as disparate in ideological composition as the Congress itself, if not more so. In Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, the initial non-Congress governments were broadly eclectic.

Ranging across the entire political spectrum, the coalition in each included all non-Congress parties, if not in the government itself, at least in its legislative alliance. This continued up to 1971.

Quite a number of students of Indian politics looked at this political frag­mentation in India with excessive optimism. They viewed the one-party domi­nant situation as the “formative phase” and the 1960-70 situations as the “interim stage” leading to the “ultimate stage of equilibrium.”

They expected the “tran­sitional” period to be a phase of the polarization of political forces which may in the long run help the political system in attaining a stage of “equilibrium” with Political stability and other attribute that go with it. This, however, did not happen.

The reason was that on the one hand the new political elite did not understand that people through a negative vote against Congress had brought Politics face to face with their socio-economic aspirations and challenged them to provide a framework of development that could deal with these aspirations.

On the other hand a new set of leaders had taken over the control of the Con­gress. This leadership’s, especially, Mrs. Gandhi’s various steps from the Ban­galore session of the Congress in 1969 resulting in the Congress split to the Bangladesh war provided the basis for an apparent reaffirmation of the kind of Policy that people wanted.

Moreover whereas prior to the 1967 elections a growing divergence between the big business and the government had led many individual representatives of big capital to intervene actively in the election campaign against the Congress.

With the post 1967 experience, including insta­bility in states and emergence of communist dominated united fronts in West Bengal, the big bourgeoisie, in general, moved behind the Congress.

Conse­quently the results of the 1971 mid-term parliamentary elections and 1972 state- assemblies’ elections turned out to be as unexpected as in 1967, putting the ruling party back to its position of dominance.

The people’s response to Congress in 1971-72 was not just a response based on unquestioning loyalty based on emotional attachments as it had been imme­diately after independence. It was a conditional response, on the basis of a promise based on the slogan of “Garibi Hatao.”

People expected from the new government that policies for the redistribution of income and wealth will be implemented and new opportunities would be offered.

However, what emerged was a basic transformation in the power structure within the Congress which put an end to the nationwide organization of the Congress party and paved the way for the ascendancy of the centralized bureaucratic apparatus on the one hand and opportunistic radicals given to the populist slogan-mongering on the other.

In view of the fact that at the grass-roots level the masses had come into their own during the decade and had shown remarkable capacity to register their sentiments and assessments at the polls.

The ruling party had to curtail the democracy itself, pretext for which was provided by a highly frustrated opposition, which inca­pable of making itself felt through the parliamentary system had taken recourse to the politics of streets.

However, given the vastness, diversity and its place in international system, India could not sustain the authoritative structure for long. Thus once again, as in 1967 and 1971-72 a fierce rejection of the failures of the government by the people in March 1977 elections was the result.

With the emergence of the Janata Party, many scholars and observers opined that parliamentary democracy in India has matured and a two-party system or close to it was in the process. Many politicians, Sarvodaya workers, and scholars interpreted it as the victory of democracy over dictatorship.

Both these were oversimplified interpretations. Once again the people’s mandate was not only an aspiration for the restoration of democracy but also the yearning for thorough going changes which would alleviate their pitiable economic conditions. More­over, by character, the Janata party was primarily a coalition formed almost overnight by bringing diverse and disparate elements together, for its very sur­vival.

Internal bickering and factionalism therefore continued in the Janata paw and tarnished the party’s overall reputation and ultimately led to an atmosphere that proved conducive to its disintegration.

Too, sensitive to democratic valued- its endeavors for economic development-whatever was possible within framework of capitalist system-further slackened.

Consequently within two years of Janata’s coming into power, the people had started looking at it with a distrust the culmination of which was a sudden and complete rejection of it in the mid-term polls.

On the basis of 1980 elections one may say that the Indian party system was again seemingly restored to what Morris Jones describes as the “one-party dominant system,” Rajni Kothari as the “Congress system” and Josephe La Palombra as “the predominant party system.”

But in view of the forces in action the Congress (I) dominated party system was sociologically and contextually differ­ent not only from the party system of the Nehru era but also from that of the latter part of the pre-emergency Indira years.

The emergency party system was, of course even structurally different from all these, in as much as it fundamen­tally altered the rules of inter party competition, administratively and legally arising the opposition parties and selectively helping the friendly parties.

Mrs. Indira Gandhi, who had established an authoritative command over her party after the January 1978 split and had become the undisputed leader and sole arbitress of the party that identified itself with her name, was the lone leader in the Congress (I) who toured all over India and canvassed for her party.

Thus, Mrs. Gandhi, rather than the Congress (I) as a party, furnished the mobilization thrust in favor of the party. Immediately after Mrs. Gandhi returned to power, it became clear that she was more important than the Congress organization and meant to dominate the political scene personally.

The attitude of the ruling Congress to the opposition parties also underwent a marked change. So long as the Congress was a dominant party and the only national force in the country, the opposition, excepting the extremist parties, was treated with respect and it was able to emerge as force to reckon with at state and local levels.

But, after the successful Janata challenge in 1977 and the split in the Congress, the top leadership of the Congress had, started feeling increas­ingly insecure and the party became intolerant and exclusivist, unwilling to share power with other parties.

This, in turn, induced the opposition parties to play the politics of survival, taking away a significant part of their political grit and assertion. In addition, the taste of power that many of the opposition parties had in the late seventies seemed to have deprived them of their capacity to oppose the Congress in a sustained and effective manner.

The Congress (I) was returned in the 1980 elections on the slogans of “the government that works” i.e., a government that provides stability, and a fair deal to all. In other words, it had again opted for consensus politics for stability.

In fact, consensus politics is the necessity of the vested interests which is not merited in a thoroughgoing restructuring of social and economic relations; but it cannot pursue this kind of politics beyond a point because of its inherently exploitative nature.

Therefore, very soon it is compelled to drop its partners in Power, strike on this or that inconvenient member of the ruling block, fall back upon the coercive state apparatus, and concentrate all powers in the hands of a single individual. Quite obviously after 1980 elections also, it led to a politics manipulation rather than purpose; a quest for power for its own sake.

Conse­quently, within two years after her triumphant return, Mrs. Gandhi was confront in disarray in her own part), corruption and inefficiency in state governments, and increasing violence in the urban and the rural areas. People started losing faith in the party once again.

The party lost elections in the Southern states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and was unable to win clear majority in the northern state of Haryana where elections to State Assemblies were held after 1980. It also lost a number of by-elections between 1982 and 1984.

It looked quite likely that, having reposed their confidence in the Confess (I) in 1980 the electorate might go in for a change next time. Commentators were expecting the arrival of a coalitional era.

However with the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi on 31st October 1984, Congress (1) was able to convince the people that the Indian State was in danger; the opposition parties had aggravated this danger; and the Congress (1) alone could protect the country against it.

Of course there was a great deal of economic and social discontent in the country, and the people wanted a change. Normally a change means a vote for the Opposition, but in the 1984 elections, the most credible agent of change seemed to be Rajiv Gandhi.

Many people, who might have voted against Indira Gandhi, voted for Rajiv Gandhi for they were in a desperate search for a leader who could stem the rot of declining political and moral standards. The youthful, sober, and clean imaged Rajiv Gandhi caught the imagination of the masses along with their sympathy.

The impression that he stood for change with preserving the continuity in the system won him the support both of those who were dissatisfied with the system and those who benefited from it and wanted it to continue.

Thus Congress (1) under Rajiv Gandhi not only got back to power but it secured the highest ever vote percentage and number of seats in the Congress history. Once again there had been restored the One Party dominance or Congress system as it was in 1950s.

With the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi it was felt that the Congress would collapse but its pull ended together under the consensus leadership of Narasimha Rao.

However the BJP now emerged as a dominant opposition group challenging the Congress both in the North and in the South.

Another feature of party system is absence of a dialectical interaction be­tween government and opposition. The ruling party distrusts the opposition and its motives.

Opposition parties on the other hand, appear to be interested more in pushing the government leaders into a bad light than in serving the national interest. For the ruling party the opposition is unnecessary and often merely nuisance, the opposition parties treat the party in power as essentially an usurps

If the history of Indian political parties is suggestive of any pattern, it is pattern of steady fragmentation and proliferation of political forces reflecting social fragmentation and regional divisions of the country.

The memory of regional glories, caste and communal divisions, cultural diversity, linguistic nationalism, varying socio-economic levels, elite-mass and rural-urban dichotomist and traditional-modern differences are likely to sustain the forces of political fragmentation and proliferation.

It is instructive to note that no all-India pattern of electoral alliances has emerged in 46 years of democratic process. Neither the left nor the right has shown any willingness or capacity to unite: there has been steady proliferation on both sides of the political spectrum.

Not even genuine external threats have induced solidarity among ideologically similar parties. Nearly all parties have been beset with internal dissensions.

Moreover the parties are no more democratic. Not only Congress (1), but other parties also have virtually become belief of individual leaders. Their con­stitutions are presidential, and the executive committees are nominated by the president. Aphorism is the norm everywhere.

No party has evolved reliable mechanisms and workable procedures for managing internal conflicts. If the Congress, with long experience in the art of political management and institu­tional patterns of behavior, has been unable to check fragmentation.

If the “Aristotelian” party has been unable to channel diverse social forces unleashed by the process of modernization, then the inescapable conclusion is that prolif­eration rather than polarization is likely to be the dominant feature of Indian political scene.

In a pluralistic society like India it is only natural to have a multiplicity of interests proliferation of political parties in India is a reflection of the democratic character of the polity.

Indian polity has not as yet reached that stage of devel­opment where ideologies are strong; the political parties are able to structure meaningful electoral issues arid parliamentary opposition successfully channelizes popular opposition.

The parties are organized around personalities and derive strength from the magnetic charm of the leaders, rather than on the basis of their programmers and policies. The binding threads of political parties are personal and astrictive ties based on formulas, rather than commitment to ideologies, Programmers and principles.

The overwhelming importance of personal and inscriptive factors rather than secular and rational factors, have contributed to the absence of ideological boundaries between most of the parties, and a blurring of the ideological parameters between the rest of them.

Lack of an ideological base of the party system prevents any ideological polarization to take place at the mass level of the polity; conversely, due to the absence of ideological commitment of the masses, it follows that in a democratic polity even organized parties Rot take categorical ideological stands.

This vicious circle has been, apparently, broken in those pockets of polity where the parties have approached the messes with distinct ideologies and their communication is not limited to seeking votes, but extends “loan education of the ideological stand that they take.

It is to be made clear that in the Indian context, ideology need not necessarily mean a dichotomy or continuum of the right-left model.

As social inequalities and conditions among the working masses grow worse the development crisis deepens streams of revolutionary movements may also develop.

And to counter that even diverse forces may attempt to unite, as essays on political issues is being done at present by creation of alliances and united front’s by various parties-or a party of so-called consensus may try to impose authoritative control, as was done in 1975 However, given the present conditions, the line of action of various political parties and their degree of organization, it seems that an era of coalition is likely to come.

There are, however, obvious limits to coalition building, and the achieve­ment capabilities of coalitions are notoriously small.

The contradiction facing the Indian parties is that while the political system imposes on them the roles of seeking power and influence through loosely constructed coalitions and of inte­grating the political community by drawing an increasing number of citizens into participation in political process.

The social conditions demand a purposeful, coherent and well-directed effort to harness the resources of the state and society to build stable institutions and achieve economic development and social im­provement.

The relevant conditions for these are general stability and economic mobilizations, which can best be achieved by limiting the extent of participation in politics in the short run and consciously restricting the area of public life exposed to political pressure without interfering with integration taking place through basic democratic process; thus allowing a balance between social au­tonomy and public purpose.

It is generally believed that parliamentary democracy can function effec­tively only if there is constructive interaction between the ruling and the oppo­sition parties. It is rather strange that India could never evolve a unified, well- knit national opposition during the past 46 years of Independence.

Of all the national leaders, Jawaharlal Nehru used to take considerable personal interest in the growth of an all-India opposition. But because of the various political com­pulsions and socio-economic realities, as already discussed, a viable national opposition could never emerge except in flashes.

It has also been mentioned that in all the elections so far, combined vote of opposition has been more than the ruling Congress. It is because of the electoral system and multi-party multi-cornered contests that the party with a minority vote has been getting not only the majority but up to three fourth of the seats.

But it does not naturally imply that combination of opposition will automatically mean defeat of Congress. In that eventuality a significant proportion of vote shift to the Congress also for various opposition parties do not represent the same ideology, class or programmed.

In fact, in most of the cases various opposition parties differ from each other more than they do so from the Congress; therefore, what is important is not the question of number of opposition parties but their role in Indian democracy.

In this context it is important to note that in the early years in spite of the weak position in Parliament the opposition parties played a very important The leaders of these parties actively participated, in debates, raised important national issues, and took the government to task for its failures.

They were respected and known for their integrity and commitment to the task of nation and constitution building. No doubt Nehru himself not only tolerated but encouraged them.

He believed that there are two or more sides to every question and called upon the opposition spokesman to present the other side of the picture whenever an important issue arose.

However, with the elimination of national level leadership, political power becoming an instrument of vested interest and decline of institutions, which we have discussed at other places, this dialectical interaction between government and opposition has been on the decline.

Particularly from the 1970s there has been developing a love-hate relationship between the ruling party and the oppo­sition parties. Of course while the ruling party has been treating the opposition with a sort of contempt the opposition too has been treating the party in power as essentially a usurper.

In fact the taste of power that many of the opposition parties had in the late sixties and seventies, particularly at the state level, seemed to have deprived them of their capacity to oppose in a sustained and effective manner.

For one thing, they seemed to have lost faith in one another. Diffidence has gripped the leaders and the rank and file of these parties. The reasons for this according to Hari Jaisingh are following:

In the first place, there is no clarity of thought and approach among most opposition parties operating at the national level. Their appeal is limited and confined to certain pockets. It is generally seen that if their strategic line makes sense the tactics in support are wholly and very often opportunist.

If the tactics possess the necessary real politick the strategy tends to be ill-defined. What is more, too much personalized politics, divorced from the raw national realities around has virtually kept the national opposition grounded.

Second, the leadership of the opposition, in general, suffers from an infe­riority complex. This is probably due to the charisma that came to be built around Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.

We cannot shut our eyes to the grass root realities. Indians, by and large, relish personality cults, whether they get woven around a fakir or a saint like Mahatma Gandhi or a prince charming as in Rajiv Gandhi’s case.

A third point is the failure of the opposition parties to evolve a collective leadership in the absence of one widely accepted leader in their midst.

For “stance, the formation of a shadow cabinet could have been one way of answering the leadership gap that the opposition front has found.

Unfortunately, most Position leaders prefer to indulge in shadow boxing among themselves rather than work collectively for improving their credibility among the masses. No under, even after their dismal failure in the last general elections there has been serious attempt to correct their perspective and improve their image.

In this context one can conclude, as already mentioned, if people’s response is analyzed then it is found that Indian democracy has suffered not be­cause of the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the people but because of the failure of opposition leadership to work harmoniously and with a sense of his­tory.

They lack realism and suffer from an inflated sense of ego. That is why the tired, old men in the opposition shift positions at the drop of a hat, form ever changing combinations out of the same corny elements, and unleash new parties when the need of the hour is to betray new attitudes and new sensibilities.