What would be the summary of the politics of India from 1947 to today?

What would be the summary of the politics of India from 1947 to today? by @balajivis

Answer by Balaji Viswanathan:

Independent India's first election was in the winter of 1951. Until then, the Constituent assembly elected in 1946 served as the Parliament. It was a closer affair with just 1800 people contesting for 489 MP seats [less than 4 people per seat on an average]. Nehru won comfortably – taking 364 of the 489 seats, although he won only 44% of the total votes.

There was the first sign of a strong socialism – with the 3 top socialist/communist parties winning nearly 20% of the total votes. The same trend continued for the next two elections – 1957 & 1962. Congress won about 45% in each elections and communist groups won 20%.

The revolution of 1967:

Until 1967, Congress had a near total control over in both state and national politics. While the Praja Socialist party took power in Kerala in 1954, Congress still dominated most of India. However, the death of Nehru and Shastri would loosen the grip of Congress. It would happen from many causes.

One reason is that Indira Gandhi called early elections for the Lok Sabha and thus separated the electoral synochronization between the centre and state. Until then, the elections both at the nation and at the regional level were conducted at the same time. This gave more room for national issues. However, by removing this relationship, it allowed much more parochial and caste wise issues to affect the regional level. We are still seeing some of the effects now.

In 1965, the Indian Constitution's protection for English was to end. The Constitution framers negotiated for 15 years of parallel usage of English & Hindi and that 15 years from the enactment of the constitution was to end (1950-65). Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri initially hesitated to continue the protection and that engulfed South India – Anti-Hindi agitations of Tamil Nadu.

(See more: What are the short-term and long-term effects of the anti-Hindi protests in Tamil Nadu?)

Out of nowhere, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam under CN Annadurai took power in 1967, fully leveraging the anti-Hindi agitations. Since then, Congress and national parties of India were never able to win in Tamil Nadu.

(See more: Why does it seem that it is only in Tamilnadu that devotion to leaders reaches fanatical levels?)

In the same year, Congress also lost grip on West Bengal. The lack of speed in land reforms brought out a big communist unrest (Naxalbari revolution) and also broke up Congress in the state to form the Bangla Congress which formed a government with the Communists. With a decade after that, Congress would be completely bundled away from the state.

In 1967, Punjab had Akali Dal taking power. In Uttar Pradesh, Charan Singh led Bharatiya Kranti Dal took power. As a result of all the regional parties arising in various parts of India, Indira Gandhi barely managed a majority in 1967 winning only 283 seats.

Breakup of Congress & Left Shift

Congress was already breaking in 1967 and there were huge differences between the left wing and the right wing of the party. The establishment under Kamaraj initially threw out Indira, but with the power of the rising left wing Indira came back to power under her new party Indian National Congress (R).

Since Indira had the support of the socialists and need to pander to them, she brought a variety of leftie moves such as nationalizing all the banks & a closer cooperation with the Soviet Union. Panic set among Indian industrialists and for two decades the Indian private sector would not recover. Indira won a thumping victory in 1971.

Emergency period

Indira seemed to get a hang of things with a resounding victory over Pakistan in 1971, bursting the Pokhran bomb and supporting the green revolution. However, her past karma caught up with her.

The Allahabad High Court nullified the election of Indira Gandhi over a trifling issue (of having a slightly high rostrum during a rally) and prevented her from standing in elections for a while.

The lady got angry and put India through a very bleak state that got the outsiders to assume that the democracy was over. Fortunately, it was not.
(See more: Chapter 9: The First Female Dictator)

In 1977 elections happened and Indira was voted out. India got out of Congress for the first time. The hodgepodge of left and right won 345 of the 543 seats. Before they could celebrate, their internal rivalries got the best of them and the coalition collapsed.

Indira was back, baby.

Flirting with terrorism

After coming back to power in 1979, Indira focused more on issues like terrorism. Indira had some success in this in the Bangladeshi liberation movement. But, she got too carried away on what she could do. She fomented Sikh terrorism through a complex political play. Eventually, she paid price with her own life.
(See more: What was Operation Blue Star?)

She also fomented the Tamil separatism by training the Lankan tigers that eventually got her son's life.
(See more: What was India's initial role in the formation of the LTTE?)

After Indira was assassinated in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards, her party presided over a national pogrom butchering Sikhs everywhere. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, won an election in a landslide through sympathy.

On the 1-10 scale of inexperience and incompetence, Rajiv scored 20. He fumbled on a range of issues from the Bhopal disaster to causing the rise of Kashmiri separatism in 1987, Babri masjid breaking and Indian Peacekeeping force.

(See more: Rajiv Gandhi: India's Worst Prime Minister)

Evolution of Regional Politics

Starting from the 1960s, various regional parties started getting quite powerful in India.

Northeast Politics:
In the case of Northeast, a lot of political movements had their origins in grassroots social movements to protect the identity. The parties are often split along ethnic/tribal/linguistic lines. The need to protect the tribal, linguistic and cultural identities are strongest in this region. In 1961, the Bengali movement in the Barak valley fought hard against making Assamese the sole official language of the state. After much agitations various parts of erstwhile Assam were made into their own states formed along ethnic lines. Many tribal groups, such as the Bodos, are still demanding statehood for their tribes.

In many of the states in Northeast India, the government alternates between Congress and a regional rival such as the United Democratic Party (Meghalaya), Sikkim Democratic Front, Mizo National Front, Manipur People's Party, Nagaland People's Front and Asom Gana Parishad. Tripura is traditionally a communist bastion and Arunachal Pradesh is mostly is a Congress bastion.

In most states, the leaders keep changing often with not many established demagogues. Sikkim is one exception where the incumbent Pawan Kumar Chamling has been holding his ship since 1994 with no one to challenge. There is a heavy influence of socialism/communism among the political parties.

The region experiences a large inflow of migrants of different groups:

  1. Bengali Muslims – Mostly from Bangladesh making use of the long porous border with India. They often end up as agricultural laborers.
  2. Bengali Hindus – Both from Bangladesh as well as West Bengal, this group often dominates the service sector.
  3. Marwari Hindus from various parts of India who compete in trade and commerce.

The resulting unemployment and cultural cleansing thus makes it a very touchy issue.  Many regional parties such as the Asom Gana Parishad made their mark by whipping the anti-outsider sentiment.

Key issues that are unique to northeast politics are:

  1. Managing migrations. The indigeneous tribes often feel threatened by the migration of plains people, especially the Bengalis.
  2. Fighting separatism. The region has the most number of separatist groups in India. The region borders 5 different countries and that makes policing quite hard. Many political groups had long fought to secede from India and a lot of them have significantly pacified now. But, tensions remain.
  3. The nature of special provisions provided to the armed forces.
  4. Protecting the various tribal practices. The region is among the most diverse in India.
  5. Religious conversions. Various tribes such as the Nagas and Mizos have mostly converted to Christianity through a major evangelical push a century ago. This had led to tensions with tribes following indigenous religions.

Western Politics:
India's western state politics is often dominated by religious issues. The western states bore the biggest brunt of India's partition in 1947 and thus religious tensions run very high. There are plenty of Hindu refugees from Pakistan who are passionately pro-BJP. Other than Shiv Sena, there are no viable regional parties in the entire Western region. 

In the case of Maharashtra, although Congress dominated the state politics for the most part, the regional party of Shiv Sena built around the same anti-outsider platform of many northeastern parties, often held sway over the western part of the state, especially the city of Mumbai.

Gujarat's and Rajasthan's regional elections often mirrored the national elections. These states often held clues of where the nation would head politically. Congress won whenever it won the center and vice versa. However, since the arrival of Narendra Modi in 2001 Gujarat had become the safest one for BJP. Rajasthanis on the other hand, religious vote BJP and Congress in an alternative fashion in the recent 5 elections.

Although Karnataka is geographically a part of the south, in politics it is more closer to western India. Unlike other southern states, national politics hold the sway in the state. Like Maharashtra and Gujarat, the state is often a key battleground between the Congress and the various Janata variants, including the present BJP.

Politics of Kerala and West Bengal:
Although these states are 1000 kilometers apart, Kerala and West Bengal are similar in a lot of ways. From their passion for football to the domination of fish in their diet, these two states stand out in a lot of things from the rest of India. In case of politics, these are the two states that vote for the Communist Party.

In the case of Kerala, the flirtation with Communism started soon after independence with the rise of the verteran socialist Pattom A. Thanu Pillai as the second Chief Minister of the state. Unions hold a very big sway over all political parties and the voters religious alternate between Communist Party and the Congress in every other election. There is not much to differentiate between the two, in this state.

West Bengal politics is somewhat similar, although the voters didn't alternate between the two parties. Between 1977 and 2011, they voted for a single party – Communist Party of India (Marxist) and was often mocked by mainstream media as a communist republic. Long periods of past famines and the lack of speed in land reforms is one reason for people's supportfor leftist ideas.

Politics of Hindi Heartland
This is the most populous part of India and dominates the national politcs. More than any other region, caste mathematics make a very strong influence on the politics here. Both the top national parties – Congress and BJP have had a strong presence here, although since the start of the new millenium, Congerss presence is waning. Thus, the recent contests were often fought between BJP and various local parties.

Bihar had a very active political movement and along with the state of UP often decided the national politics. In return, the national government often had a strong grip on the state. However, as Congress started losing control over the Centre, the politcs of Bihar went on a roller coaster. In the period between 1968 and 1980, the state was constantly having elections with no party unable to form a stable government. In 1977, Bihar voted out Congress and since then the different variants of the Janata Party have been ruling the state.

Both in the case of Bihar and UP, mindboggling alliances of different castes kept forming at opportune movements and turned the tide. Sometimes, the Dalits and Muslims will join hands to get to power, like in the case of Mayawati (former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh). Other times Brahmins, Muslims and extremely backward Dalits will join a coalition against Dalits and Other Backward Castes. This complex caste dynamic has often made it hard to predict electoral victories.

In the case of UP, the added dynamic is the rise of "Ram politics" that we will see shortly. Religion plays a much bigger role in UP than it does in Bihar or Madhya Pradesh. Given that the state had a central role in both Hindu epics as well as Mughal empire, it becomes a strongly contended territory between Hindus and Muslims.

Politics of North India
Like in the south and northeast, regional parties are quite strong. Jammu & Kashmir is dominated by National Conference, which was instrumental in getting the state to integrate with India. Between 1990 and 1996, the state was directly ruled by the Central government in the heights of insurgency. The Centre argued that the state is incapable of managing law and order. It was among the longest use of the special powers provided by the Indian Constitution.

Just like in the case of northeast, Punjab politics was often driven by identity and there is a constant switch between Congress and the regional party of Akali Dal. In 1966, Indira Gandhi rewarded the Sikhs with their own state following the 1965 war. This was a long agitation as the Sikhs felt disfrenchaised in an united Punjab with majority Hindus. The resulting split created the state of Haryana. In the 1970s and 1980s, the state went through a strong separatist movement, until the "super cop" KPS Gill brough the insurgency to an end in the early 1990s.

The politics of Haryana was mostly dominated by the Congress which fought regional factions such as Haryana Vikas Party and Indian National Lok Dal. Like in the case of Bihar, caste politics do play a strong part. Since about 2012, the state political climate is radically chaging both due to the influence of neighboring New Delhi and a total disappointment with state politicians. In a surprising show in the October 2014 elections, BJP formed the government.

Politics of South India & Orissa
The three distinguishing characteristics of politics in this region are:

  1. Very strong dynastic rule, especially in Orissa, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
  2. Very strong identity towards that state. State/linguistic identity is much stronger than ethnic, caste, tribal and religious identities.
  3. Given the strong state level patriotism, the push towards development is a little strong although Orissa and Andhra suffer from a deeply forested interior.

In the case of Orissa, the politics was dominated by two rival Patnaik families – one of late Biju Patnaik and other of JB Patnaik. In the case of Tamil Nadu, the politics switched between the Karunanidhi clan and the MGR clan. In the case of Andhra Pradesh, the family of late NT Rama Rao hold a big sway.

In all the southern states linguistic passions run very high and primary identity is through the language.

Age of Coalitions

After Rajiv absolutely screwed both India and his party in the 1989 elections, a hodgepodge of left and right came to power. The new government brought the OBC politics to the table and signals the rise of a new political power center. The controversy created out of Mandal Commission broke the coalition and Congress was back to power in 1991.

This time, finally we had a guy who is not a member of the Nehru family. India did well in the economy as Narasimha Rao led the country well, especially the first 3 years of his term. The last two years, he was too engrossed in the various scams that eventually took his legacy apart.

(See more: What was it like to witness the 1991 economic reforms in India?)

In 1996 election, yet another group of third parties came to power and yet another time they failed in 2 years.

Rise of BJP

For a long time, BJP was in the shadows of its parent organization, RSS (National Volunteers Organization). Its organization was mostly run by some hardcore nationalists who were extremely poor in media management. They often gave outlandish, stupid statements and let the media paint them as crackheads. They found it very hard to utilize the public distrust for the Congress party.

In the late 1980s, they got real big push from an unexpected source: a TV series on Ramayana.

In 1987, Indian TV had its biggest blockbuster – Ramanand Sagar's TV adoption of Asia's famed epic – Ramayan. The roaring success of the TV series brought "Lord Ram" into the households of the educated middle class, which for a while seemed to move completely out of religion.

BJP leader Advani lost no time in running a "chariot" atop his Toyota van all over the nation. India was in "Ram frenzy". In late 1992, they used the frenzy to demolish a dilapidated old mosque in the holy city of Ayodhya. Although, the mosque demolition brought temporary backlash against them, by 1996 they became the single largest party in the Parliament using the leadership of moderate Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

In 1998, it came to power and lost no time in taking India nuclear. In the following year, they were able to withstand a war against Pakistan over the Kashmiri town named Kargil. Nationalism was at its peak and the liberal Atal Bihari Vajpayee took India to one of the longest period of growth. By 2004, Indian economy was among the hottest in the world.

BJP gets carried away & Congress is back

In 2004 BJP appeared a juggernaut. They delivered growth, won wars and the nation was fairly peaceful. However, a big riot in Gujarat in 2002 that involved various BJP leaders was a big black mark for them. More importantly, the leadership was too confident of their victory and went overboard with their ads.

While India was fast growing, a lot of Indians were still poor. Many of them were taken aback by the ad campaign and this opened the door for the old devil. Congress leadership, now under Indira's daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi seemed to finally fix its leadership trouble. It narrowly won the elections. Sonia appointed a dummy figure head in Dr. Manmohan Singh to avoid bringing controversies about her own past (naturalized citizen who didn't take up citizenship at the first opportunity).

India did a fairly good job in 2004-09 timeframe and people voted them back in 2009, this time with a much bigger margin. Later, a whole lot of massive scams like the 2G spectrum was unearthed and the anti-incumbency factor set in.

Rise of Modi

In 2014, BJP finally had a leader who was able to work the media well. Until Modi's time, almost all media were anti-BJP for the most part. BJP and RSS were often clueless in talking to the media and thus repelled many of their target voters. Modi was adept in the art of media management and forced both BJP and RSS to not give out loose statements. The media tried really hard to bait him to give out self-defeating statements, but Modi was too smart for them. Everyone in RSS and their sister organizations knew that he was the winning horse and all decks were cleared to help Modi in every way.

Modi's rise has reversed a 3 decade trend towards regional politics. Regional parties like DMK, SP, BSP and ADMK were punching well above their league and the trend since 2014 May elections seems to be moving the other way regional satraps.

Key Political Slogans

Econo centric

  1. Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan [Hail the Soldier, Hail the Farmer] – In the midst of the 1965 war with Pakistan, the Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri coined this slogan to improve the moral. It is to highlight the two critical aspects of Indian society – the farmers who were reeling from a series of famines and soldiers who were fighting an endless stream of major wars in the early part of 1960s [with Portugal, China and Pakistan]. Congress made use of the slogan in the 1967 elections.
  2. Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan, Jai Vigyan [Hail the soldier, farmer and the sciences] – In 1998, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee made an update to Shastri's slogan by adding the sciences part. India tested the nuclear device and there was a high level of nationalism in that period with nuclear & defense tech forming a significant part of people's discussions.
  3. Garibi Hato [Abolish Poverty] – In 1971, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi created this catchy slogan to indicate her priority. India was going through its worst economic period and there was a significant pain among the poor all over India. India had turned clearly socialist by then and politicians of all stripe shifted left. The slogan captures that trend. All said, there was very little of poverty abolishing in that era.
  4. India Shining – In 2004, the ruling BJP government went on the complete opposite of Indira's slogan. India had turned right by then and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee wanted to utilize the general sense of euphoria that followed a period of brisk economic growth. However, they declared victory too soon. While India started to shine, it was a long way from actually shining. It spooked the poor and Vajpayee lost the elections.
  5. Congress ka Haath, Aam Aadmi ke Saath [The Hand symbol of Congress will always protect the common man] In 2004, Congress was desperate for a misstep by the BJP and they got one with "India Shining". Congress reminded the people that poverty still exists and the party would fight for the proverbial "common man".

Leader centric

  1. Indira Hatao Desh Bachao [Remove Indira; Save the nation]In 1977, Indian society was slowly emerging from the political horror show of Emergency. There was a very real fear that India would follow the autocratic ways of its neighbors. At this critical juncture, veteran politican JP Narayanan coined this slogan and won the election.
  2. Ek sherni, sau langur [One Tigress, hundred monkeys] – In 1978 byelections in the sounthern constituency of Chikmagalur, Indira was staging a comeback. She was highlighting her bravery and played the victim card of how she was surrounded now. She also explicitly called out the confusing politics at the centre as the anti-Indira coalition found themselves in a pickle – with little common between them.
  3. Jab Tak Suraj Chand Rahega, Indira Tera Naam Rahega [As long as the Sun is shining, Indira's name would live] – In 1984, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi wanted rode the sympathy wave following Indira Gandhi's assassination. India was not used to political assassinations and the only major one before that was the 1948 assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. Thus, people were in a state of shock and the Congress party completely milked the sympathy with a historic majority. Indira's name was everywhere.
  4. Sabko Dekha Bari Bari, Abki Bari Atal Bihari [We have seen everyone. Now, it's the turn of Atal Bihari] – In 1996, there was a strong anti-incumbency trend. India has had a variety of coalition governments in the previous 7 years and there was an electoral fatigue. BJP wanted to make use of the clean image of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The plan almost worked with the BJP emerging as the largest party in the Parliament. However, its government lasted a mere 13 days and had to wait 2 years to form a stable government.
  5. Jancha, Parkha, Khara [Tried, Tested, Trusted] In the 1999 elections, Prime Minister Vajpayee ran against Rajiv's widow Sonia Gandhi. He wanted to highlight his experience against the greenhorn Ms. Gandhi. People trusted enough to send him with a much bigger majority than they gave a year ago. He completed the full term without much fuss – a rarity in that era.
  6. Ab ki baar, Modi Sarkar [This time, it's Modi's turn] – In 2014, Modi's campaign primarily centered around him and his leadership credentials. This level of leader-centrism is unusual even in a persona-centric Indian politics. The slogan and the campaign was a roaring success.

Social issues centric

  1. Ondre Kulam, oruvane thevan [Mankind is one. God is One] – In the 1967 elections, CN Annadurai broke away from the athiestic Dravidian movement to adopt the slogan of the Tamil religious saint, Maraimalai adigalar. There was a strong anti-caste stream in the first part of the slogan, while the second part of the slogan disrepudiated Periyar's anti-God movement. The slogan eventually took Tamilnadu firmly into Dravidian politics.
  2. Tilak, taraju aur talwar, Inko maaro joote chaar [Hit the Brahmins, Banias and Rajputs with shoes] In the 1990s, UP leader Mayawati brought the most casteist slogan of all by going explicitly at the top 3 categories of the Hindu caste system. She rode to power by galvanizing the lower caste votes.
  3. Maa, Mati, Manush [Mother, Motherland and Mankind]  – In the 2009 elections in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee ran with this slogan that portrayed her credentials as the proverbial mother fighting to save the state from the Communists. A few other top female politicians like Jayalalalitha Jayaram of Tamilnadu also use the sentimental value of the mother.
  4. Jai Telangana [Long live Telengana] – One of the longest running statehood movements culminated in 2014 with the creation of the separate state of Telengana formed out of the erstwhile Hyderabad state. It was among the most passionate movements in India with the supporters writing the slogan even on answers sheets in school examinations.

Key Issues that influence election outcomes

  1. Inflation – In 1998, the price of onion shot up to Rs.40/kg  [approx. $1/kg at that time] in many parts of India.  The ruling BJP lost Delhi. In 2003, Congress lost the states of Rajasthan, Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh for the same reason. Indian voters are very sensitive to the prices of essential commodities like onion and these often decide outcomes in state elections.
  2. Corruption – Since about the early 1980s, scams and corruption have come to the centrestage in political campaigns. In 1989, Congress lost from a historic majority in the previous elections due to the Bofors scam among many other issues. In 1996, Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao amidst a range of of scams such as money laundering Hawala scam. In 2014, a range of scams led by the spectrum auction destroyed the Congress campaign.

What would be the summary of the politics of India from 1947 to today?


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