The decline of the Congress (I) since the late 1980s has brought an end to the dominant single-party system that had long characterized India's politics. Under the old system, conflict within the Congress was often a more important political dynamic than was conflict between the Congress and the opposition. The Congress had set the political agenda and the opposition responded. A new party system, in which the Congress (I) is merely one of several major participants, was in place by 1989 (see fig. 15). As often as not in the mid-1990s, the Congress (I) seems to respond to the initiatives of other parties rather than set its own political agenda.
At least once every five years, India's Election Commission supervises one of the largest, most complex exercises of collective action in the world. India's elections in the 1990s involve overseeing an electorate of about 521 million voters who travel to nearly 600,000 polling stations to chose from some 8,950 candidates representing roughly 162 parties. The elections reveal much about Indian society. Candidates span a wide spectrum of backgrounds, including former royalty, cinema superstars, religious holy men, war heroes, and a growing number of farmers. Campaigns utilize communications technologies ranging from the latest video van with two-way screens to the traditional rumor traveling by word of mouth. Increasing violence also has come to characterize elections. In 1991, some 350 people, including former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, four other parliamentary candidates, and twenty-one candidates running in state legislative assembly elections, were killed in election-related violence.
India's party system is in the throes of historic change. The 1989 general elections brought the era of Congress dominance to an end. Even though the Congress (I) regained power in 1991, it was no longer the pivot around which the party system revolved. Instead, it represented just one strategy for organizing a political majority, and a declining one at that. While the Congress (I) was encountering growing difficulties in maintaining its coalition of upper-caste elites, Muslims, Scheduled Castes, and Scheduled Tribes, the BJP was endeavoring to organize a new majority around the appeal of Hindu nationalism. The Janata Dal and the BSP, among others, were attempting to fashion a new majority out of the increasingly assertive Backward Classes, Dalits, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and religious minorities.
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