Recently, The Economist published an article with the tag ‘India’s diminishing democracy’ which discussed about an ‘increasingly dominant prime minister and the on-going erosion of checks and balances’. It was alarmist enough to anyone who values democracy and believes that despite the many weaknesses it has democracy in India is intact — even thriving.
Further, our federal structure is also intact — we might be witnessing the dominance of one political party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but to extrapolate that it is a sign of democracy weakening is stretching it a bit too thin. In fact, it was hardly a month ago that a young scion of a regional party nearly defeated the BJP-led alliance in the Bihar assembly elections. That the farmers protest has reached the door steps of the national capital and it has forced the government to negotiate with the protesters is yet another sign that the vitals of democracy are encouraging.
There are several indicators that show India is far from a one-party state. For instance, take party-wise position in Parliament. In the Lok Sabha, the BJP is in a majority with 303 of the 545 seats. However, in the Rajya Sabha, it has only 93 MPs — and is far from the halfway mark of 123 seats. Its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) add 25 more seats which is still short of a simple majority. The regional parties always have a sizeable number, currently 111 MPs in the Rajya Sabha — which is 46 percent of the upper house. This ensures checks and balances are in place.
A look at the state assemblies will also give a similar image. Of the total 4,119 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) from the 28 states and three union territories which have an assembly, the BJP has 1,367 MLAs, while the Congress has 786. In seven states the BJP has less than three MLAs in the assembly. Regional parties have 1,841 MLAs which 46 percent of the total MLAs in the country.
Regional parties normally align with the national party in power. These alliances are seldom cast in stone. It is, in fact, yet another check and balance against one-party dominance.
The BJP is in power in 12 out of 31 (28 states and three union territories) legislative assemblies across India. Its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) allies are in power in six more, taking the tally to 18. Out of these 18, eight are small states which send one or two MPs to the Lok Sabha. On the other hand, the Congress and its allies are in power in six states, while regional parties are in power in six states.
Among the six states where regional parties are in power, in Delhi, West Bengal and Odisha the BJP is the main opposition party. In Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Telangana its placed third or worse.
The BJP-led NDA governs 54 percent of India’s population through assemblies, and in terms of area, it is 48 percent. In at least eight states the BJP has never had its own Chief Minister.
All this goes on to show that though the BJP is expanding its footprint, the regional parties are still a force to reckon with in Indian politics. Since Independence regional parties have been consistent performers when it comes to vote shares during elections.
From 1952 to 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the aggregate vote share of the two main parties, the Congress and the BJP, is 51 percent; for regional parties and independents it has been 49 percent. (See graph below)
India is a country of diverse cultures, traditions, languages, religious and political beliefs. In a way it is many countries into one. No single party has enjoyed complete dominance in Independent India, not even the Congress in its hey days under former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. In 1957, the first non-Congress government was formed in Kerala. In 1967, out of 21 states then, non-Congress governments were installed in nine states.
The decline of the Congress has coincided with the rise of the BJP, and it is in the process of filling the vacuum left behind by the grand old party. The data above shows that while the equations among the national parties might have changed, the regional parties are still holding the fort.
The article was first published here.