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India - Political Developments

PartyPrime Minister
19471964CongressJawaharlal Nehru
19641966CongressLal Bahadur Shastri
19661977CongressIndira Gandhi
19771979JanataMorarji Desai
19791980JanataCharan Singh
19801984CongressIndira Gandhi
19841989CongressRajiv Gandhi
19891990Janata DalV.P. Singh
19901991Janata DalChandra Shekhar
19911996CongressP.V. Narasimha Rao
19961996Bharatiya JanataAtal Bihari Vajpayee
19961997Janata DalH.D. Deve Gowda
19961997Janata DalInder Kumar Gujral
19972004Bharatiya JanataAtal Bihari Vajpayee
20042014CongressManmohan Singh
2014202?Bharatiya JanataNarendra Modi

As for democracy as practiced in India, Arundhati Roy said: 'While there is some amount of democracy in India­ there has not been a single day since independence when the state has not deployed the armed forces to quash insurgencies within its boundaries. The numbers of people who have been killed and tortured are incredible. It is a state which is continuously at war with its own people. If you look what is happening in places like Chhattisgarh and Odisha it will be an insult to call it a democracy'.

Ms Roy further believes 'that elections have become a massive corporate project and the media is owned and operated by the same corporations too'. She opines that "some amount of democracy in India is reserved for its middle classes alone and through thatthey are co-opted by the state and become loyal consumers of the state narrative'.

After independence, the Indian National Congress, the party of Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, ruled India under the leadership first of Nehru and then his daughter (Indira Gandhi) and grandson (Rajiv Gandhi), with the exception of brief periods in the 1970s and 1980s, during a short period in 1996, and the period from 1998-2004, when a coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party governed.

Prime Minister Nehru governed the nation until his death in 1964. Nehru was succeeded by Lal Bahadur Shastri, who also died in office. In 1966, power passed to Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister from 1966 to 1977. In 1975, beset with deepening political and economic problems, Mrs. Gandhi declared a state of emergency and suspended many civil liberties. Seeking a mandate at the polls for her policies, she called for elections in 1977, only to be defeated by Morarji Desai, who headed the Janata Party, an amalgam of five opposition parties.

In 1979, Desai's Government crumbled. Charan Singh formed an interim government, which was followed by Mrs. Gandhi's return to power in January 1980. On October 31, 1984, Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated, and her son, Rajiv, was chosen by the Congress (I)--for "Indira"--Party to take her place. His Congress government was plagued with allegations of corruption resulting in an early call for national elections in 1989.

Although Rajiv Gandhi's Congress Party won more seats than any other single party in the 1989 elections, he was unable to form a government with a clear majority. The Janata Dal, a union of opposition parties, then joined with the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the right and the Communists on the left to form the government. This loose coalition collapsed in November 1990, and the Janata Dal, supported by the Congress (I), came to power for a short period, with Chandra Shekhar as Prime Minister. That alliance also collapsed, resulting in national elections in June 1991.

While campaigning in Tamil Nadu on behalf of Congress (I), Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated on May 27, 1991, apparently by Tamil extremists from Sri Lanka, unhappy with India's armed intervention to try to stop the civil war there. In the elections, Congress (I) won 213 parliamentary seats and returned to power at the head of a coalition, under the leadership of P.V. Narasimha Rao. This Congress-led government, which served a full 5-year term, initiated a gradual process of economic liberalization and reform, which opened the Indian economy to global trade and investment. India's domestic politics also took new shape, as the nationalist appeal of the Congress Party gave way to traditional caste, creed, and ethnic alignments, leading to the founding of a plethora of small, regionally based political parties.

The final months of the Rao-led government in the spring of 1996 were marred by several major corruption scandals, which contributed to the worst electoral performance by the Congress Party in its history. The Hindu-nationalist BJP emerged from the May 1996 national elections as the single-largest party in the Lok Sabha but without a parliamentary majority. Under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the subsequent BJP coalition lasted only 13 days. With all political parties wishing to avoid another round of elections, a 14-party coalition led by the Janata Dal formed a government known as the United Front, under the former Chief Minister of Karnataka, H.D. Deve Gowda. His government collapsed after less than a year, when the Congress Party withdrew its support in March 1997. Inder Kumar Gujral replaced Deve Gowda as the consensus choice for Prime Minister at the head of a 16-party United Front coalition.

In November 1997, the Congress Party again withdrew support from the United Front. In new elections in February 1998, the BJP won the largest number of seats in Parliament--182--but fell far short of a majority. On March 20, 1998, the President approved a BJP-led coalition government with Vajpayee again serving as Prime Minister. On May 11 and 13, 1998, this government conducted a series of underground nuclear tests, spurring U.S. President Bill Clinton to impose economic sanctions on India pursuant to the 1994 Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Act.

Political parties in India are exempt from scrutiny of their past foreign fundings. They can receive political donations from Indians living abroad as well as foreign companies with subsidiaries in India. A controversial amendment to a law on foreign donations, with retrospective effect, was rushed through parliament by the government in March 2018 without any debate.

The key amendment to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010, which in its previous version banned political parties from receiving foreign funding, drew criticism from activists. India's two main political parties - the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress Party - were found guilty of breaking the law by a Delhi court in 2014. In its ruling, the court had said that the two parties accepted funds from companies owned by London-listed mining group Vedanta Resources between 2004 and 2012.

One noteworthy aspect of BJP’s political dominance is its weakness at the state level. The BJP controls the smallest number of states for any party to command a majority at the center in India’s history. Indian politics has gradually evolved into a dichotomy in which voters have come to prioritize ideological issues at the national level and livelihood issues at the state level. The BJP’s plank of Hindutva-infused nationalism has given the party very limited returns in state elections since 2018. In the event of a BJP victory, the chief ministers are handpicked by Modi, not by their state units. The BJP benefits from Modi when it is the challenger for power as Modi makes up for a weak state leadership (as in the case of Bengal), but in state elections where the BJP is the incumbent, Modi is often a liability, as it exerts a significant downward pressure on the existing state leadership.

A tension exists between the disproportional upper-caste leadership of the BJP and the vote base of the party, which is mostly made up of backward castes. Modi, the most powerful backward-caste leader of the party, has bridged these two factions, without fully resolving this tension. And BJP has used turncoats to overturn opposition governments in states such as Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Goa, and Puducherry. Many of these new entrants to the party face corruption charges, and the threat of the central investigative agencies is frequently employed as a recruiting mechanism, blended with the more seductive offers of power and treasure. The conflict between purists and powerseekers can often lead to intense factional conflicts.

The crucial 2021 state elections would test the limits of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, hitherto untouched by the conventional laws of political competition. The five states spanning eastern and southern India – West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Puducherry – seat a fifth of the members of the Lok Sabha (the lower house of parliament) in India. Through his deep personal involvement, Modi has staked his reputation in the elections of these states, especially in Bengal and Assam. A disastrous performance for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would galvanize an opposition, and would reinforce the notion that the larger-than-life persona of Modi can be taken down.

The political scientist Rajni Kothari famously termed India’s political system, during the heyday of the Congress, as the “Congress system”, as it was difficult to separate India from the Congress, which pervaded all aspects of political life and relegated all other political parties to the margins. Modi is not simply governing but rather transforming the country in fundamental ways. According to political scientist and activist Yogendra Yadav, the “First Republic” of the country is past and India’s “Second Republic” is at hand. The Second Republic, according to Yadav, is a new political epoch where the constitutional values of pluralism, dialogue, and institutional autonomy are replaced by Hindu majoritarianism. “The constitutional form of parliamentary democracy may remain untinkered with, yet for all practical purposes India could become a Latin American-style presidential democracy where the supreme leader draws power from the people and is answerable only to them. The public could be continuously mobilized to undo the republic,” Yadav wrote in 2020.

The verdict by the V-Dem Institute, downgrading India under Modi to the status of an “electoral autocracy,” certainly endorses that grim reading. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's increasing resort to authoritarian tactics meant that he was now more often bracketed in the international media with the strongmen leaders of Russia, Brazil, Hungary, and Turkey. The latest Freedom House Index designated India, for the first time in three decades, as only “partly free.”

Modi’s government has long been accused of attempting to stifle critical reporting in the world’s biggest democracy, something it denies. On Reporters Without Borders’ 2021 Press Freedom Index, India ranks 142nd out of 180 countries.

The next general election is set for 2024.

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Page last modified: 12-04-2022 19:16:33 ZULU