Government and Politics
INDIAN POLITICS ENTERED a new era at the beginning of the 1990s. The period of political domination by the Congress (I) branch of the Indian National Congress (see Glossary) came to an end with the party's defeat in the 1989 general elections, and India began a period of intense multiparty political competition. Even though the Congress (I) regained power as a minority government in 1991, its grasp on power was precarious. The Nehruvian socialist ideology that the party had used to fashion India's political agenda had lost much of its popular appeal. The Congress (I) political leadership had lost the mantle of moral integrity inherited from the Indian National Congress's role in the independence movement, and it was widely viewed as corrupt. Support among key social bases of the Congress (I) political coalition was seriously eroding. The main alternative to the Congress (I), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP--Indian People's Party), embarked on a campaign to reorganize the Indian electorate in an effort to create a Hindu nationalist majority coalition. Simultaneously, such parties as the Janata Dal (People's Party), the Samajwadi Party (Socialist Party), and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP--Party of Society's Majority) attempted to ascend to power on the crest of an alliance of interests uniting Dalits (see Glossary), Backward Classes (see Glossary), Scheduled Tribes (see Glossary), and religious minorities.
The structure of India's federal--or union--system not only creates a strong central government but also has facilitated the concentration of power in the central government in general and in particular in the Office of the Prime Minister. This centralization of power has been a source of considerable controversy and political tension. It is likely to further exacerbate political conflict because of the increasing pluralism of the country's party system and the growing diversity of interest-group representation.
Once viewed as a source of solutions for the country's economic and social problems, the Indian polity is increasingly seen by political observers as the problem. When populist political appeals stir the passions of the masses, government institutions appear less capable than ever before of accommodating conflicts in a society mobilized along competing ethnic and religious lines. In addition, law and order have become increasingly tenuous because of the growing inability of the police to curb criminal activities and quell communal disturbances. Indeed, many observers bemoan the "criminalization" of Indian politics at a time when politicians routinely hire "muscle power" to improve their electoral prospects, and criminals themselves successfully run for public office. These circumstances have led some observers to conclude that India has entered into a growing crisis of governability.
Few analysts would deny the gravity of India's problems, but some contend they have occurred amidst the maturation of civil society and the emergence of new, more democratic political practices. Backward Classes, the Dalits, and tribal peoples increasingly have refused to rest content with the patronage and populism characteristic of the "Congress system." Mobilization of these groups has provided a viable base for the political opposition and unraveled the fabric of the Congress. Since the late 1970s, there has been a proliferation of nongovernmental organizations. These groups made new demands on the political system that required a substantial redistribution of political power, economic resources, and social status.
Whether or not developments in Indian politics exacerbate the continuing problems or give birth to greater democracy broadly hinges on efforts to resolve three key issues. How will India's political system, now more than ever based on egalitarian democratic values, accommodate the changes taking place in its hierarchical social system? How will the state balance the need to recognize the interests of the country's remarkably heterogeneous society with the imperatives of national unity? And, in the face of the declining legitimacy of the Indian state and the continuing development of civil society, can the Indian state regenerate its legitimacy, and if it is to do so, how should it redefine the boundaries between state and society? India has confronted these issues throughout much of its history. These issues, with their intrinsic tensions, will continue to serve as sources of change in the continuing evolution of the Indian polity.
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