So Many Parties

Besides nearly a billion  voters and more than a million polling stations, Indian general elections are big for another reason: the sheer number of aspirants.

The two large parties–Bharatiya Janata Party and Indian National Congress–that have led most of India’s governments so far fielded 769 candidates this time. Then there were more than 30 other parties in the run.

 Hidden behind a heated contest between large parties are more than 700 less-known political parties clamouring for attention with diverse ideologies and ambitions, even if their chances of victory are very low.

 The number of parties has been steadily rising, but those that managed to win seats have barely grown.

 In addition to the 4,440 candidates fielded by different parties, there were 3,920 people contesting as independent candidates; all together, that made 8,360 candidates in the fray, the largest in 28 years. Only 543 of them will be elected.

The rapid growth of Indian political parties from the late 1980s onward could be the result of several factors, such as declining strength of the Congress Party, fragmentation within the socialist bloc, and assertion of various political identities the country saw around that time.

Spread across thirty-six states and federal territories, Indians hailing from diverse ethnic origins speak hundreds of languages and thousands of dialects.

“Each group wants to be represented via its own leader, based on factors such as region, caste and sub-caste.”. “A large number of such formations mobilise voters on these issues.”

The small regional parties do matter in the larger picture though. At times, they end up being kingmakers when large parties fall short of a majority.

Most Indian governments in the past three decades have been led by a coalition of parties, even when a single party managed to cross the halfway mark.

India follows a first-past-the-post electoral system, in which voters cast a ballot for a single candidate and the one with the highest number wins. So, in practice, a candidate can win even with a minority of votes.

Founding political parties serves purposes beyond electoral gains, such as legal exemption from income tax, which could be another reason for their proliferation. Moreover, parties are “practically and effectively able to convert black money into white.” “People can buy cars and houses for themselves in the name of the party.”

There are other intangible benefits, such as expecting favourable treatment by government officers based on the perception that politicians are influential individuals.

Parties also put up shadow candidates for various reasons. More than a thousand candidates have withdrawn their nominations for this year’s election, though the reasons are not known.

Despite the increasing number of parties contesting Indian elections, the bunch of parties winning seats has not expanded..Of more than 1,500 parties that have contested the past 15 Lok Sabha elections, a majority contested only once. Only 34 parties contested more than half of these elections.

[Contributed by Vijdan Mohammad Kawoosa]

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Vol 56, No. 51, Jun 16 - 22, 2024