Written by Dishil Shrimankar.

Since independence in 1947, India has maintained a remarkable record of preserving procedural democracy (except a brief interregnum in 1975). A number of studies have underlined the role of the Congress Party in helping democracy consolidate in the country.  Particularly important was the role of the Congress Party organisation in bringing the diversity of India within a single organisation. The party held internal elections and always maintained a separate profile from the government.

However, the party did not have an institutionalised character at the sub-national level.  Even during the heydays of the ‘Congress system’, regional political elites monopolised and personalised power at the sub-national level. This differed from the national level. The combination of strong organisation at the national level with personalisation of power at the sub-national level provided two vital functions for Indian democracy. First, it accommodated strong regional elites within the system, who had the power to disrupt the stability of the system had they not been accommodated. And, second, it provided mobility to some groups to rise up to the national level without challenging the prevailing status quo.

At the moment the BJP is able to avoid large scale defections of its sub-national leadership, and curtail their autonomy. This may change when the party loses elections, and particularly, when it is no longer able to rely on Modi’s personal charisma.

This balance was shaken under Indira Gandhi’s tenure. Indira Gandhi’s Congress Party abandoned organisational elections for posts at the national level, and personalised decision making authority. This contributed to defections both at the national and the sub-national levels with many regional political elites forming their own political units. This did not have an immediate electoral impact. Indira Gandhi’s charisma continued to help the party win elections, but the personalisation of power at the national level initiated a process of organisational decay that eventually culminated in the party’s ouster in 1977, after the Emergency.  Even when the party returned to power at the national level in 1980, the regional political elites consolidated their position, providing strong opposition to the party at the state-level. Ironically, these newly formed political parties were not in any way more organised than the Congress Party.

In contrast to the Congress Party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been regarded as an organised party by many scholars of Indian politics. The party’s association with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which has constantly lent the support of its organisational machinery and an ideologically motivated cadre to the party, is an important reason for classifying the party in that way. Unlike the Congress Party, no single leader or family controls the BJP organisation at the national level.

At the sub-national level however, the party is led by a leadership who has monopolised and personalised political power in much the same way as any other political party in India. Take the example of the Gujarat BJP state unit under Narendra Modi. Since his take over as the Gujarat Chief Minister in 2001, Narendra Modi centralised and personalised power at the state-level. He ran the BJP’s Gujarat unit like his own regional party without following any commands by the party’s central leadership. It is important to note that Modi was not alone in the BJP to monopolise power at the regional level, but he is unique in taking his style of politics from Gujarat to the national level.

The national level in India represents a whole new political setting. The multitude of languages, caste and religious diversity across the country works against the centralising tendencies in the long run. While in the short-run, in much the same way as Indira Gandhi led-Congress Party, the BJP is able to win elections relying heavily on the charisma of Narendra Modi, the future of the BJP is less certain when Modi’s political capital declines? At the moment the BJP is able to avoid large scale defections of its sub-national leadership, and curtail their autonomy. This may change when the party loses elections, and particularly, when it is no longer able to rely on Modi’s personal charisma. Will it then suffer from similar large scale defections similar to the ones faced by the Congress Party? The BJP has also inducted a large number of political elites from rival parties (including the Congress) whose loyalty to the party is only guaranteed when the party is able to win elections. The RSS core leadership have warned against this trend, making repeated statements against inducting members from rival parties.

Finally, what does this mean for Indian democracy? Of course, as noted by Steven Wilkinson, the organisational decay within individual parties might not directly translate at the party system level. Indian democracy might thrive even as individual parties do not. One interesting scenario is that the political elites who have joined the BJP from rival political parties may be able to dilute the Hindutva ideology. This might stop the party drifting further right, at least at the grassroots level. Also, if Modi’s centralisation drives are able to curtail the anti-constitutional activities of some of the BJP’s members, then this bodes well for Indian democracy. But, if the induction of the political elites means that they are schooled in the party’s Hindutva ideology, then this may leave little room for alternatives at the grassroots level. Furthermore, if the high level of centralisation and personalisation prevents the flow of information from the lower levels of the party to its upper echelons, then this is likely to further alienate Indians.

A global survey on attitudes to democracy conducted by Lokniti-CSDS shows that political parties were the least trusted political institutions in the country. Technology has accelerated this process. We have seen how Narendra Modi used technology in Gujarat to connect with his voters; circumventing the role of elected representatives at the constituency level. It remains to be seen how he will be able to do this at the national level. Whatever the outcome, this does not bode well for the state of political parties in India.

Dishil Shrimankar is a doctoral student in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. His thesis is on party organisation in Gujarat and Maharashtra. He tweets @Dishil91 Image credit: CC by Al Jazeera/Flickr.

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