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General (National) Elections


GENERAL (NATIONAL) ELECTIONS India's first "general election," as national elections are called in India, was held in 1952, following the adoption of India's independent democratic Constitution in 1950. The first election was a monumental event. A nationwide election based on adult franchise on such a scale had never been undertaken before. It required the recruitment of armies of election officers, thousands of ballot boxes, and hundreds of polling stations. Given the fact that some 80 percent of the adult voting population was illiterate at that time, parties and candidates were identified by pictures and symbols. There were some unusual and unexpected problems, such as a marauding tiger preventing some voters from getting to their poll booth, and paper rupees being stuffed in some ballot boxes by people who thought they were donation boxes. Overall, the first election ran smoothly. Since then, elections in India have been held regularly in accordance with constitutional requirements. By the end of 2004, fourteen general elections had been held: in 1952, 1957, 1962, 1967, 1971, 1977, 1980, 1984, 1989, 1991, 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2004.

Elections to the lower house of Parliament, known as the Lok Sabha (House of the People), are based on adult franchise and a direct vote. There are 545 seats in the Lok Sabha, of which all but two are subject to direct election. Those two seats are nominated by the president of India, on the advice of the prime minister, to include special minorities who may not otherwise be represented. National electoral constituencies are formed in accordance with population, giving more populous states more seats. Members of Parliament's upper house, the Rajya Sabha (Council of States) are elected indirectly by elected members of the Vidhan Sabhas (state legislatures), and through nominations by the president of India on the advice of the prime minister.

India's ruling government may call for the dissolution of Parliament and for new general elections to the Lok Sabha at any time after it takes office. However, the government cannot remain in power for more than five years and must call for new elections by the end of its fifth year in office. The Lok Sabha is then dissolved, and new national elections must take place. The ruling government may also fall if a majority of the members of Parliament pass a vote of "no confidence." This happened at the national level only once, in 1998, although state governments have frequently been dissolved by such votes, with members of the ruling state governments defecting to the opposition by walking across to the opposition benches. An antidefection law was adopted in 1985 as the 52nd Amendment to India's Constitution.

General Elections during the Nehru-Gandhi Dynasty, 1952–1977, 1979–1989

Between 1952 and 1989, the Congress Party under the "Nehru Dynasty" (prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Rajiv Gandhi) dominated Indian elections, winning clear majorities in all national elections. After Nehru's death in May 1964, the Congress Party government was briefly headed by Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, until his own sudden death in January 1966, the only time before the death of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 that a non-Nehru family member formally led a Congress government.

Following India's defeat of Pakistani forces in East Pakistan in December 1971 in the war for an independent Bangladesh, Indira Gandhi led her party to an overwhelming victory against the divided opposition parties, gaining more than a two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha. Her declaration of the "National Emergency" in June 1975 generated a strong reaction against her. In the March 1977 elections, Gandhi's Congress Party was defeated by a quickly forged coalition of parties called the Janata Party (People's Party), led by former Congress Party leader and finance minister Morarji Desai. Indira Gandhi's Congress won only 153 seats, 34.5 percent of the votes. The Janata Party was composed mainly of breakaway Congress Party groups, socialists, and members of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Jana Sangh. Infighting and factionalism among that motley group brought down the Janata government in 1980.

In the 1980 elections, the Congress Party, led by Gandhi, won 351 of the 539 seats contested in the 545-seat Lok Sabha. Following Gandhi's assassination in 1984, her son Rajiv Gandhi led the Congress Party to an overwhelming victory, securing 396 Lok Sabha seats, an unprecedented 49 percent of the votes. In the 1989 elections, the Congress Party won only 193 of the 525 seats contested.

The main opposition parties to the Congress Party were the earlier reincarnations of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), namely, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh (until 1971) and the Bharatiya Lok Dal (until 1977); the Communist Party of India ; the breakaway Communist Party of India Marxist; the Swatantra Party; the Praja Socialist Party; and the Samyukta Socialist Party.

The Post-1989 Era of Coalition Politics and Governments

The defeat of Rajiv Gandhi's Congress Party in 1989 ushered in a decade of coalition and minority governments. The first of these, a coalition government called the National Front under Prime Minister V. P. Singh of the Janata Party (1989–1991), was followed by a minority Congress Party government under Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao (1991–1996), and then by two short-lived minority United Front coalition governments under prime ministers H. K. Deve Gowda and I. K. Gujral (1996–January 1998). With no party obtaining a simple majority in the March 1998 elections, a coalition government led by the BJP, under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, took office. A year later, in April 1999, the Vajpayee government fell, losing a vote of no confidence in Parliament by a single vote. The loss was caused when the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party of Tamil Nadu, led by Jayalalitha Jayaraman, defected from the coalition. These weak and unstable governments contrasted sharply to the period from 1947 to 1989, when the Congress Party ruled with a clear majority of seats, except for a brief interval between 1977 and 1979. However, even during Congress Party majority rule, the party received less than 50 percent of the total votes, varying between 34.5 and 48.1 percent.

In the March 1998 elections, the Hindu nationalist BJP and its allies secured 252 seats in the 545-seat Lok Sabha, of which 179 were secured by the BJP. The Congress Party and its allies received 167 seats, including 141 by the Congress Party itself. The United Front secured 97 seats. Minor parties and nominations filled the remaining seats. Since 1998, the ability of BJP- or Congress Party–led coalitions to remain in power for the full five-year term has appeared tenuous. For example, after the BJP-led coalition took office in 1998, Tamil Nadu's AIADMK, led by Jayalalitha Jayaraman, continued to escalate its demands for cabinet posts and other privileges. The AIADMK won only 18 seats in parliament in 1998, compared to the BJP's 178, but its membership in the coalition was crucial for the BJP, giving Jayalalitha's AIADMK a disproportionate number of political offices and power.

Regional parties have assumed important roles in making or breaking the BJP- and Congress Party–led coalitions during this period. These include the Akali Dal, the Sikh party of Punjab; the Telugu Desam Party of Andhra Pradesh; the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and AIADMK of Tamil Nadu; the National Conference of Jammu and Kashmir; the Asom Gana Parishad of Assam; and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) of North India, a party of the Dalits (former "untouchable" castes).

Reversal of Fortunes: 1999 and 2004 General Elections

National elections were called by the ruling BJP coalition government in the spring of 2004, India's fourteenth general election since 1952. As in the previous elections in 1989, 1991, 1995, 1998, and 1999, no single party was able to claim a majority in the 2004 elections. This time, however, the coalition of parties led by the Congress Party and its leader, Sonia Gandhi, defeated the ruling coalition led by the BJP under Prime Minister Vajpayee.

The main allies of the Congress in the 2004 elections were the breakaway nationalist Congress Party, the AIADMK of Tamil Nadu, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Republican Party of India (primarily a Dalit party), the Kerala Congress, and the Muslim League of Kerala. Elected members from the Communist Party of India and and the Communist Party of India Marxist, classified under other parties, supported the Congress coalition in Parliament to keep it in power without being a formal part of the coalition. The main allies of the BJP were the Shiv Sena, the DMK, the Telugu Desam of Andhra Pradesh, the Akali Dal of Punjab, the Indian National Lok Dal, the Biju Lok Dal, the Samata Party, and the Lok Shakti.

The Congress Party, identified with Sonia Gandhi, is the political heir of the original Indian National Congress (INC), founded in 1888, which led India to independence. After the death of Nehru in 1964, and especially after his daughter Indira Gandhi took over as prime minister in 1966, factions within the Congress Party broke away to form separate parties. The split began with a rift between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the finance minister Morarji Desai, leading to two Congress parties, Congress (I) and Congress (O). Breakaway new Congress parties were, however, unable to claim the legacy of the original INC, which continued to be held by the Nehru-Gandhi family and its loyal supporters.

In 2004, Sonia Gandhi's INC contested 417 seats in the 545-seat Lok Sabha, winning 145 seats. The Congress coalition as a whole won 220 of the 428 seats that were subject to elections. The BJP, led by former prime minister A. B. Vajpayee, contested 334 seats and won 138. The BJP coalition as a whole won 185 seats. Independents and smaller parties won 137 seats.

In comparison, in the previous 1999 general elections, the BJP and its allies had won a majority of 298 seats, compared to 135 seats won by Congress and its allies. Independents and smaller parties won 137 seats in 1999. The 2004 general election was thus a surprising turnaround from the 1999 general election.

Reasons for the success of Congress and its left-wing supporting parties in 2004 have been attributed to the greater attention it paid to the rural poor compared to the BJP, which trumpeted the success of its high tech revolution that largely benefited a rising Indian middle class, variously estimated at between 15 and 30 percent of the population. The Nehru-Gandhi mystique and the popular image of Sonia Gandhi among the masses, a white woman in a white sari and a red tilak on her forehead, along with the campaign conducted by her children, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, played an important role in the success of the Congress coalition. The defeat of the BJP has also been attributed to its promotion of a hardline Hindu nationalist ideology, which alienated the religious minorities of India (20 percent of the population), especially Muslims and Christians. The Akali Dal, the minority Sikh party of Punjab, was allied with the BJP. Additionally, the BJP's high caste Hindu image and its alliance with the more extreme Shiv Sena and its nonparty affiliates, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), alienated much of the Dalit populace. The Dalits, the former "untouchable castes" also known as the Scheduled Castes, may constitute as much as 25 percent of the population, and have remained outside the caste-based Hindu fold, from which they have been excluded for two millennia.

Until the electoral campaign of early 1998, the BJP and other more radical Hindu parties, especially the Shiv Sena, argued for the rejection of the secular ideals of Nehru's Congress Party, which are also espoused by most other Indian parties, including the Janata Dal, the Samajwadi Party, the two main factions of the Communist Party, and the regional parties in the south (the Tamil Maanila Congress and the two factions of the DMK of Tamil Nadu, and the Telugu Desam of Andhra Pradesh). The secularism of all of these parties have now come to represent the equality of all religions in practice, rather than the Western concept of the separation of church and state. On the other hand, the Hindu nationalists represented in the BJP—the Shiv Sena, the RSS (an unarmed paramilitary Hindu nationalist affiliate of the BJP), the Bajrang Dal, and another nonparty organization called the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)—wish to establish India as a Hindu state under the political banner of "Hindutva." The more benign version of the relatively more moderate BJP's Hindutva would be a broad Hindu Weltanschauung, of which other religious groups would also be a part. The VHP and RSS, and the more extreme elements of the BJP and the Shiv Sena, however, have talked of marginalizing or even Hinduizing all of India's minorities.

In early 1998, with the BJP on the threshold of gaining even more seats in the Lok Sahba and possibly forming the next government itself, the party moved even more toward the secular ideology of the other parties. Indeed, the BJP's main leader and designated shadow prime minister, Vajpayee, publicly declared in January 1998 that a BJP government would retain India's secular Constitution and would continue to implement the secular policies of previous governments. Such reassurances were further reinforced by statements from L. K. Advani, who subsequently became the home minister and deputy prime minister in the BJP government.

Even the more radical Hindu party, the Shiv Sena, called for reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims. As a symbol of this new move, the ultranationalist Hindu leader of the Shiv Sena, Bal Thackeray, went further by calling for the erection of a Hindu-Muslim monument at Ayodhya, where the fifteenth-century mosque of the Mughal emperor Babur had been demolished by Hindu mobs in December 1992, triggering widespread Hindu-Muslim rioting and killing. In making this ideological shift, the BJP and its main ally, the Shiv Sena, were able to draw some Congress Party members to their fold, as well as members from other secular regional parties. There are at least two reasons for this ideological shift on the part of the BJP and the Shiv Sena. Unlike the earlier Hindu Mahasabha (banned after one of its members assassinated Mahatma Gandhi), and its successor, the Jana Sangha, from which the BJP originated, the BJP has learned that an avowedly Hindu nationalist platform causes fear and adverse reactions among India's Muslim minority of 120 million, as well as among the other 50 million Christian and Sikh minorities. Secessionist violence in Kashmir, Punjab, and the Christian tribal states of the northeastern region could also be aggravated.

Additionally, the emphasis on Hindu nationalism in Hindi-speaking North India has not generated support from the Dravidian states in the South—Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Kerala—which constitute about 20 percent of India's population. More importantly, the image of Hindu nationalism represented by upper caste Hindus has alienated the Dalits and the other "backward castes" (the lower caste Shudras), who constitute together about 70 percent of the Hindu population (about 55 percent of the Indian population). Without support from these groups, the BJP would have difficulty obtaining an electoral majority in the Lok Sabha—the main reason they were a marginal party for decades until the 1990s. Democracy in India has, in fact, reversed the power of the Hindu caste hierarchy, with Brahmans carrying the least number of electoral votes, less than 5 percent.

Raju G. C. Thomas

See alsoAdvani, Lal Krishna ; Ayodhya ; Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ; Congress Party ; Gandhi, Indira ; Gandhi, Rajiv ; Gandhi, Sonia ; Hindu Nationalist Parties ; Hindutva and Politics ; Shiv Sena ; Vajpayee, Atal Bihari ; Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)


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