Some of the most important features of Indian party system are as follows:
1. A Multi-party System:
As a land of social and cultural pluralism, India has been a natural home for a multi-party system. Presently there are several major active parties working in India at the national level and in various states. Some parties are national level parties while others are regional or local political parties.
Congress, BJP, BSP, CPI, CPM, NCP and BSP are the National level parties. LJP, Janata Dal (U), Janata Dal (S), BJD, SP, AIADMK, DMK, Telugu Desham, SAD, RLD, RJD, PDP, TDP, AGP, ML, and many others are regional or state level political parties. We can legitimately say that there are almost 50 active political parties, national as well as regional in the Indian Political System. In addition to these there are about 400 other registered political parties.
2. Rapidly Changing Party Structures:
The party structure in India has been continuously and rapidly changing due to splits, defections, and alliances. Almost every political party has been living through splits. The Congress experienced four big splits in 1969, 1977, 1995 and 1999. In 1999 the Nationalist Congress Party emerged out of a split in the Congress. In-fact, several political parties like Trinamool Congress, TMC and several others have come out of the Congress as a result of splits.
In 1964, the Communist Party suffered a split and CPI and CPM emerged on the Indian political scene. In 1977, the party system underwent a big change when Jan Sangh, Bhartiya, Lok Dal, Socialist Party, Congress (O) and Congress rebels combined to form the Janata Party. In 1978, the Congress suffered another split when Congress (U) was formed by rebel Congressmen who were led by Devraj Urs. In 1979, however, the Janata Party suffered a split when Janata (S), i.e., Lok Dal separated itself from this party.
In April 1980, the former Jan Sangh members parted company and formed the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). In 1988, the Janata Party, the Lok Dal and the Jana Morcha combined to form Janata Dal. In 1990, Janata Dal (S) was formed out of the Janata Dal. During 1991- 2001; the Janata Dal suffered atleast four splits or mass defections. The SAD, the DMK, the TDP, the LD and several other regional parties have also suffered splits. These have been a source of big political changes in Indian politics. Infact, India Party System has been a continuously changing party system.
3. Dominant Position of the Congress during 1947-89:
The Indian multi-party system initially worked as one party dominant multi-party system. Between 1947-67, the Congress dominanted fully the Indian political scene at the national and state levels. It got 354, 371, 361 seats in 1952, 1957 and 1962 General Elections respectively. In 1967 it got 283 seats in the Lok Sabha. A split then came into its way which forced it to depend upon the CPI and DMK for support. Non-Congress governments came to power in several states.
However, it proved to be a short-lived change. In 1971 elections, the Congress again got 352 seats in the Lok Sabha. Between 1971-74, the Congress retrieved its formidable position both at the Union and State levels. However, the emergency rule imposed by it during June 1975 to March 1977, reduced its popularity and it suffered a big defeat in March 1977 elections.
A united opposition (the Janata Party) was successful in defeating it. However, the internal factionalism in the Janata Party again set the stage for the re-emergence of the Congress as the dominant party in 1980 elections. Thereafter between 1980-1989, the Congress again remained the dominal party in Indian Party system. Thereafter its popularity and position began declining.
In 1989 elections it could get only 193 and in 1991 224 Lok Sabha seats. In both these elections, it failed to secure a majority. In 1989, it decided to sit in the opposition. But in 1991, it decided to form the government at the Centre. At the state level also, though it improved its position as compared to its position in 1989, yet it failed to regain full strength. Between 1991-97, the popularity of the congress party kept on changing.
After 1997, the Congress suffered a big a decline. Even today its position continues to be weak. It continues to be a major national level political party but its dominant position has come to end. It now depends upon the support other parties for getting the power to rule.
4. Presence of a Recognised Opposition:
Initially when Indian Party System was working as a one-party-dominant-multi- party system, lack of an effective opposition was its big weakness. In the first four general elections no party other than the Congress was in a position to secure even 50 seats, the minimum constitutional requirement for getting the status of the ‘opposition party’.
In 1969, when there occurred a split in the Congress, the Congress (O) got the status of an opposition party. But this development was short-lived as in the 1971 elections the Congress-I scored a resounding victory and no other party was in a position to get more than 25 seats. In 1974 seven political parties, combined to form the Bhartiya Lok Dal with Ch. Charan Singh as its head. With this very end in view, the Congress (O), Jan Sangh, BLD and Socialist Party combined to form the Janata Party in 1977.
Later on, CFD also joined it. In 1977- elections the Janata Party scored a majority, and the Congress with 155 seats became the opposition party. However, in 1980 elections, the Congress (I) secured a major victory and no other party could secure 63 seats required for getting the status of a recognised opposition party.
In 1989-elections, the Congress emerged as the largest party with 193 seats. It decided not to stake its claim for making the government and hence got recognition as the opposition party in the Lok Sabha. In 1991 elections, the Congress scored 224 seats and again failed to score a majority, but it decided to form the government.
Next to it came BJP, which scored 119 seats and it got the status of the opposition party in the Lok Sabha. In June 1996, the United Front came to power in the Centre and the BJP again became the recognised opposition party. In 1998-and 1999 i.e., in 12th and 13th Lok Sabhas again the Congress got the status as the recognised opposition. In the 14th Lok Sabha (Present Lok Sabha) the BJP is the recognised opposition party.
5. Recognised Special States of the Leader of Opposition:
In October 1999 Mrs. Sonia Gandhi got recognition and status (equal to a minister) as the leader of opposition. In May 2004 Mr. L.K. Advani of the BJP became the leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha. Under the Salary and Allowances of Leaders of Opposition in Parliament Act 1977, the leader of opposition in each House of the Parliament enjoys a special status. His status is equal to that of a cabinet minister and he draws the same salary and allowances as are drawn by a cabinet minister.
6. System of Registration of Political Parties:
Since December 1988 there has been in existence a provision for the registration of political parties with the Election Commission. By amending the Representation of the People Act 1951, it has been laid down that it is essential for each political party to get itself registered with the Election Commission. A party which fails to get registered is not accepted as a political party. Each new party has to apply for registration within 30 days of its birth.
7. Large number of Regional Political Parties:
The existence of a large number of regional or state level political parties along with some national level political parties is a reality of Indian Political System. Such a feature is quite natural for a country like India which is characterised by social pluralism. A regional party is one which enjoys its popularity in one or two States. Biju Janata Dal (BJD) DMK, AIADMK, National Conference, Shiromani Akali Dal, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Assom Gana Parishad, PMK, TRS, LJP, RLD, RPI, RSP, MNF, NLP, Telugu Desam, Vishal Haryana Party, Bangla Congress, Utkal Congress, Forward Bloc, IUML, Kerala Congress, Manipur National Front, DMK, AlADMK etc. are some of the more prominent regional parties. Several States of Indian Union are being ruled by the regional parties either individually or in coalition.
8. Power-sharing between National and Regional Political Parties:
A new development in the Indian political systems has been the emergence of a process of power-sharing between National and Regional parties. Since June 1996, a coalition, consisting of several regional parties and some national level parties has been ruling at the Centre. The CPM has been ruling West Bengal in a similar fashion for more than 30 years. Congress is sharing power with NCP in Maharashtra.
PDP in J & K, BJD and BJP are in an alliance in Orissa. The leaders of regional parties have started playing an active and even deterministic role in the organisation of the Central Government. Since May 2004, Congress-led UPA, an alliance of 14 parties has been in power at the centre.
9. Similar Ideological Perceptions:
Almost all political parties have similar ideologies. In fact, the parties are not very rigid about their ideological commitments. All the parties are committed to uphold democracy, secularism, socialism and decentralisation, and most of them now favour liberalisation and privatisation. All of these are willing to use the caste factor, linguistic factor and regionalism for expanding their support bases.
10. Existence of some Communalist Parties:
A communal party is one which draws its support from amongst the members of a particular community. In this way several Indian political parties can be called communal parties. Muslim League, Majlise Shura, Akali Dal, IML, AIMIM are all in a way communal parties. Some persons particularly some left ideologists hold that even BJP is also such party because it enjoys the support of mainly (95%) of the Hindus. The BJP and its supporters, however strongly deny such a charge and they describe it as a positive secularist party. Even DMK and AIADMK are anti-Brahmin parties in Tamil Nadu.
11. Internal Groupism in each Political Party:
Groupism has been present in most of the political parties. Internal groupism in Congress has been a recognised feature. The existence of ‘Leftists’, ‘Rightists’, ‘Dissidents’, and ‘Inner circles’, within the Congress has been a historical fact. It is also true of all other political parties. This feature has been mainly responsible for political splits and defections. Groups owing loyalties to different leaders are present in almost every party.
12. Personality-Cult Politics:
Personality-cult dominates party politics in India. Several political parties stand organised around a leader. The existence of such political parties like Congress (Indira), Congress (Jagjiwan Ram), Congress (Urs), Janata Party (JP), AD (Mann), AD (Badal), AD (Longowal), AD (Man), Jan Sangh (Madhok), Janata Dal (A), Lok Dal (A) Biju Janata Dal and others reflect the presence of politics of personality-cult in Indian political parties. It has been a practice with the political leaders of India to float their separate political parties.
13. Not fully Democratic Organisations:
Most of the parties in India do not have good democratically organised structures. Theoretically, all the political parties stand organised in a democratic way but in practice the ‘top leaders’ of a party always dominate the party organisation. Party elections are rarely held. Political parties hold their state level and national level conventions and conferences but in these also the ‘leaders’ dominate the proceedings.
The principle of ‘One leader One office’ is advocated but rarely followed. Even the political parties which are active actors in the democratic process are undemocratic in their internal workings. This is as much true of the Congress Party as of the CPM, CPI or the BJP.
The Election Commission has made it mandatory for the political parties to hold organisational elections. At times, the Chief Election Commissioner directs the political parties to complete their organisational elections by a stipulated date.
14. Lack of Party Discipline:
Lack of discipline among the party members is again a sad reality of Indian party system. The party members do not hesitate to become rebels whenever they find a decision unacceptable. In elections ‘the dissidents’ or ‘the rebels’ even oppose and contest elections against the officially sponsored party candidates. The party discipline is, at times, enforced and it takes the form of suspension or removal of the rebels or dissidents from membership for a period of six years or so.
But, such rebels/dissidents are in a position either to return to the party or in causing a split in the party or in joining another party which is even opposed to their parent party. Lack of party discipline has been a source of defections, splits, factionalism, groupism and political turncoatism in Indian politics.
15. Political Defections:
The evil of defections in the form of floor crossings after winning elections on particular party tickets, has been present in the Indian political system. It came to be the standard practice of the dissidents’ particularly after the fourth General Elections (1967). Post-1967 years witnessed the emergence of the era of ‘Aya Rams and Gaya Rams’ in Indian politics.
Defection is an undemocratic practice as it involves a breach of trust on the part of an elected representative who after getting elected on a particular party ticket decides to change his party loyalty and join another party for securing a berth in the ministry or for causing a fall of the ministry or for his selfish petty political or financial gains.
In January 1985, the evil practice of defection was sought to be buried through the enactment of the 52nd Amendment Act. After its enactment, the evil practice of defection suffered a decline. However, even this act provided for a ‘qualified defection’ in so far as it admitted that a mass defection, involving at least one-third of the members of a party who decide to form a new party or join hands with other parties in the political process, was to be called a split and not a defection and hence was to be legal and valid.
The presence of ‘factions’ and ‘groups’ within every party, the personality cult politics, the presence of political corruption, and the existence of several political parties, all have given rise to an environment in which politics of ‘defections’, continues to remain present. Even the latest amendment of the Act has not been successful in eliminating the menace of political defections.
16. Large Number of Independent Candidates in Elections:
Another feature, which has a bearing on the working of Indian Party System, can be described as the presence of a large number of independent candidates in the elections. The political parties have to meet the challenge posed by locally popular independent candidates who are contesting elections from various constituencies. The Constitution grants to the citizens the right to contest elections and in actual practice a large number of independent candidates come forward to utilise this right.
17. Politics of Populism:
Almost all the political parties adopt and follow populistic policies and raise populistic slogans for securing votes. The party in power uses its power of policy-making for attracting votes. ‘Rozgar yojnas’, ‘Waving of Loans’, ‘Power to the People’, ‘Increased Reservations’, ‘Vote for Mandir’, ‘Protection of Panth’, ‘Protection of interests of Minorities’, ‘Garibi Hatao’, ‘Free water’, ‘Free-electricity’ Flour and Pulse at Rs. 4 and Rs. 20 per kg, etc. are used as election-eve slogans for securing votes.
18. Resort to Direct Action Means and Electroal Malpractices:
In India all the political parties have been using—strikes, dharnas, gheraos, bandhs, boycotts, passive resistance i.e. direct action and pressure means for securing party gains. During elections some of these even resort to malpractices like booth capturing, rigging, forced voting, threats of liquidation, poll-violence, vendetta against opponents and forcible prevention from voting. The practice of forming ‘militant senas’ also reflects also the presence of violence in party politics and electoral politics.
19. Politics of Opportunistic Alliances:
Political parties often resort to unprincipled electoral alliances and coalitions for securing short term gains. During elections, almost all the political parties enter into unprincipled alliances. These do not hesitate to enter into electoral alliances with communal parties.
During October 1999—May 2004, the ruling alliance (BJP-led National Democratic Alliance) was a collection of several mutually opposed organisations. Trinamool Congress left the alliance to joint hands with the Congress in West Bengal. However after few months it rejoined the NDA. The left parties have been continuously oppositing the Congress, yet in May 2004, these extended support from outside to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance. RJD of Sh. Laloo Prasad and LJSP of Sh. Ram Vilas Paswan are totally opposed to each other in Bihar and yet both are coalition partners in the ruling UPA. It is all politics of opportunism.
20. Dawn of the era of Coalition Politics:
The era of coalition politics has dawned in India. Since 1996 coalition governments have been in power at the centre and in several states. Between October 1999 May 2004, the Centre was ruled by the National Democratic Alliance government. Since May 2004 UPA coalition has been ruling at the Centre. West-Bengal has been under the rule of a left front for more than three decades.
In Punjab SAD-BJP alliance has been in power since Feb. 2007. Congress-NCP has been ruling Maharashtra. Congress-PDP alliance has been in power in J & K. In Orissa BJD-BJP alliance has been ruling the state since 1999. The age of coalition politics, which can be described as the natural outflow of a multi-party system, has definitely arrived in the Indian political system.
21. System of Recognising Parties as National Political Parties, Regional Political Parties and State Parties:
On the basis of the performance of various political parties, the Election Commission grants recognition to these as National Political Parties or State Parties. On December 2, 2000, the Election Commission revised the criteria for granting such recognition by amending the symbol order. This new criteria has been : A political party gets recognised as a National Political Party, either when it secures at least 6% of the valid votes polled in any four or more states in a general election to the Lok Sabha.
A political party gets a recognition as a State Party if it secures 6% of the valid votes votes polled in a state (Either in a general election to the Lok Sabha or to the legislative assembly of the concerned state) or if it wins at least 3% of the total number of seats in the Legislative Assembly of the state or if it wins at least three seats in the legislative assembly of the concerned state, whichever is more. Only the recognised parties enjoy the facility of free broadcasts from the Doordarshan and the AIR and get a free supply of copies of the electoral rolls. Only recognised political parties use their symbol in elections.
Indian Party System has been a fast changing and developing multi party system. It has come out of the age of one-party-dominant-multi- party system and is now developing as a real multi-party system. The existence of several political parties both national and regional, has kept the Indian political party scenario complex and even confusing. Even several of its features as described above can be really described as its defects. Indian multi-party system has been a product of the social, economic, cultural, linguistic, religious and regional pluralism which has been a basic feature of Indian society.