Why India has so many parties

Proliferation of parties can be traced to the making and unmaking of chief ministers by the Congress high command in the 1980s

In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, 363 political parties (seven national parties, 34 state parties, and 242 registered and unrecognised parties) contested, along with 3,831 independent candidates. Thirty-eight political parties (and nine independents) are currently represented in Lok Sabha. Twelve parties have only one member, seven are represented by two members, another 10 have between three to 10 members in Lok Sabha. Only the Congress and the BJP have more than 5 per cent of the seats (27 seats) in the House. With the emergence of new players on the political map — Jaganmohan Reddy's YSR Congress, B.S. Yeddyurappa's Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP), Keshubhai Patel's Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP), P.A. Sangma's National People's Party (NPP), Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) — there could be many more parties trying their luck in the 2014 general elections. At last count, there were more than 1,400 political parties registered with the Election Commission of India.

Why does India have so many parties? The most popular argument links the participatory upsurge among hitherto marginalised sections of society during the 1990s to the explosion in the number of parties. Majoritarian politics around the issues of Mandal and Mandir sharpened caste and religious cleavages, which also led to the creation of more parties.

Our view, however, is different. We claim that the increasing interference of the Central government (especially the Congress high command) in state politics in the 1980s, after Indira Gandhi returned to power, is an overlooked factor in explaining the explosion in number of parties in the 1990s. During the 1950s and 1960s, state party bosses presided over the "Congress system" (to use Rajni Kothari's memorable phrase) and ran the traditional party machines. These state party bosses were at loggerheads with Indira Gandhi. Consequently, between 1967 and 1975, she did almost everything possible to prevent new, independent centres of power in states from rising again. She split the Congress party in 1969, delinked state and national elections in 1971, and de-institutionalised the Congress party.

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