The Pulse

Understanding India’s Political Evolution

Recent assembly election results speak to the enduring strength of India’s democracy.

Akhilesh Pillalamarri
Understanding India’s Political Evolution
Credit: Flickr/ narendramodi

Only slightly more than a year ago, it seemed as though India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was set to dominate India’s political landscape for years to come, with the main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, encumbered by purposelessness and the lackluster leadership of dynastic scion Rahul Gandhi. Yet, the same Rahul Gandhi has now led his party to victories in important state elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh, which have traditionally been regarded as friendly ground for the BJP, being in the Hindi-speaking “cow belt.”

What happened? In a nutshell, the BJP is not as strong as it seems, despite Modi’s personal popularity, though it is probably still on track to emerge as the front-runner in the country’s national elections next year, as Krzysztof Iwanek explains at The Diplomat. That being said, much of the BJP’s strength after its victory at the national level in 2014 was driven by excitement, rhetoric, and hope, and people have less of those after four years. Moreover, opportunism among local leaders who wished to jump onto the BJP’s successful bandwagon strengthened the party and its alliance partners in state elections subsequent to 2014.

On the other hand, Congress is not as weak as it seems, despite the prior inexperience of Gandhi, and the party’s dismal performance in 2014, when it only won 44 seats out of 545 in the Lok Sabha, or lower house of India’s parliament. The Congress, which has been around since 1885, almost 100 years longer than the BJP (founded in 1980), has a network, institutional presence throughout India, and name-recognition that no other party in India has, and so is well placed to bounce back whenever voters get tired of other parties.

The strength of both parties is a sign of the health of India’s political system, which shows of becoming a pronounced, national two-party system, with the BJP encroaching on southern and eastern states outside of its traditional strongholds, while Congress remains dynamic in the Hindi-heartland states that have been the BJP’s traditional base. Though still important, there is only so much local parties can accomplish: they have relatively little power on the national level because they do not have institutional support across many states and in the central government. Moreover, as people become more educated and mobile, the appeal of caste-based or regional parties decreases, because the political goals of regional parties are narrow and local.

India’s Parties and Political Schools of Thought

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India’s main parties represent the two main streams of political thought in the country today: one more focused on the idea that the state is subservient to society, and the other one on the idea that society is “formed and realized through the state.” However both parties have at times pursued state-centric and society-centric policies.

The BJP encapulates to an extent the traditional idea of pre-modern Hindu political thinking. According to Pradeep K. Chhibber and Rahul Verma in their book, Ideology and Identity: The Changing Party Systems of India, in such a society:

The state is subservient to society, especially where social norms and economic transformation are concerned… the ruler has a limited role. He is the guardian and preserver of a social order. It is not the role of the king to transform society. Social change can come only from the religious transformation of individuals….[nonetheless] the king has the authority to levy taxes, provide for the poor and needy, and build infrastructure, but not redistribute property…[the] role of the king has mainly been that of an administrator who must maintain political order while preserving the social order.

I call this vision the Gupta model, after the Gupta Empire (late 200s-late 500s CE), which pioneered this sort of “hands-off” feudalized state, emulated later throughout India. Traditionally proponents of this view have been influenced by Brahmins, the caste group associated with scholarship and ritual. The period before and during the Gupta era was characterized by:

The gradual erosion of the government’s centralized power… land-grants, which began from this time, created administrative pockets in the countryside… in the absence of close supervision by the state, village affairs were now managed by leading local elements, who conducted land transactions without consulting the government…With the innumerable [subcaste] jatis (which were systematized and legalized during this period) governing a large part of the activities of their members, very little was left for central government.

The BJP often plays to this approach. For example, it supported protesters demonstrating against a recent Supreme Court’s decision to interfere in the customs of the Sabarimala Temple, allowing women aged 20-50 to enter the sanctum. Yet, the BJP has also used state power to try to impose a uniformity of customs, such as dietary habits. Indians are quite resilient in the face of changes to their social norms (for example, 95 percent of marriages are still within their caste), which is not always a good thing.

Yet, governmental intervention in matters pertaining to caste hierarchy and economic welfare are quite welcome for much of the population, which is why the alternative approach to government, often exemplified by the Congress Party, appeals to many in India. Conversely, while the Muslim community does not want government intervention in personal religious matters, similar to many on the Hindu-right, they welcome the Congress’ check on Hindu social majoritarianism.

This view is characterized by Chhiber and Verma as part of the Western political tradition of using the state to intervene in social and economic activity in pursuit of certain goals, because society cannot necessarily be trusted to achieve these goals on its own. In India, thinkers such as Dalit (“untouchable”) leader B.R. Ambedkar and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru channeled into the local context Hobbes, Locke, Marx, Rousseau, and Hegel. This state-centered approach resulted in quotas for castes, a large bureaucracy and interventionist state, and economic planning.

This social vision also has roots in Indian history, so I call this vision the Mauryan model, after the bureaucratic, centralized Mauryan Empire (321-185 BCE) of ancient India, whose model did not persist through much of India’s subsequent history. Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, for example, used the state to promote new social and religious norms, including Buddhism. It is not surprising that kshatriyas, members of the varna (caste) that traditionally were rulers and administrators, have been been more closely associated with this approach and new ideas, such as Krishna, Buddha, and Mahavira Jain. Ancient Indian literature is filled with conflict between Brahmins and kshatriyas.

The interplay between these two ideals of governance is a major factor in the continued strength of both the Congress and BJP, despite the ups and downs both parties have to face in the political cycle. Individuals and groups will constantly move along the spectrum between statism and social dominance over the state as per their needs. So coalitions of groups and personal ideological preferences that prove favorable to both the BJP and Congress at different times will continue to propel both these parties to power in different elections.

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This post is the first in an ongoing series for The Pulse.