The Resurgence of Identity Parties: A Positive Step for Indian Democracy?
by Barun Mitra and Amy Killian*
“Paradoxical” is how many describe the complexity of India. Astronomical growth coupled with extreme poverty, a vibrant citizenry coexisting with intense corruption, and modernity juxtaposed with antiquity confound and confuse observers.
Paradoxical also describes two simultaneous trends in India’s democracy. As suggested over the last few years, and reinforced in 2012, India is transitioning away from identity-based politics, yet also returning power to identity-based parties.
What does this mean? And what are the implications for India’s democratic development?
To understand, let us examine the first trend. Indian voters are choosing performance over identity, with many identity-based parties finding themselves emphatically rejected at the polls. Formed in the 1960s as a reaction against the powerful Congress Party, these groups built political support by appealing to voters’ language, caste, ethnicity, or religion. In the past, such tactics had been largely successful. However, recent state elections suggest that Indian voters have begun casting ballots based on performance, not loyalty to caste or religion.
Most emblematic of this shift is the 2010 reelection of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in the eastern state of Bihar. Kumar first defeated the entrenched Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) party in 2005 after the RJD’s disastrous 15-year reign. The RJD-led coalition, built around caste and religion, left Bihar the most impoverished and corrupt state in India. Under Kumar, corruption has plummeted and growth has soared, earning him a second term.
Other states have followed suit. In March 2012, voters in Uttar Pradesh ousted the long-ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which drew its support from the Dalit, or lowest castes. Four-time BSP Chief Minister Kumari Mayawati had accomplished little more than building extravagant statues to pander to lower castes, which did not impress voters. Last year West Bengal booted the ailing Communist Party of India after 34 years of rule, and voters in Tamil Nadu soundly rejected the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party in reaction to the scandals of its ally, the Congress Party.
The triumph of performance over pandering is promising. Yet it parallels a second development: the rejection of diverse national parties in favor of small, regional identity parties. Mayawati was ousted not by national figure Rahul Gandhi and his Congress Party, but instead by the Samajwadi Party, a regional group catering to Muslims and lower-caste voters. Similarities have emerged in other states; Andhra Pradesh remains embattled as support for regional ethnic-based parties grows.
Are Indians simply voting out identity-based poor performers and replacing them with similar identity-based substitutes? Does ethnicity continue to define Indian politics?
No. Closer examination reveals three reasons why the rise of identity-based parties may hold promise for Indian democracy:
- While identity-based parties are reemerging, they are doing so on the basis of performance. The Samajwadi Party of Uttar Pradesh won with increased support from its Muslim base, but poor-performing Mayawati lost in part because her Dalit base was fed up. In Goa, the feeble and scandal-ridden Congress Party lost its loyal Catholic base to the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). While identity is still politically relevant, voters are increasingly willing to shift their political loyalty based on performance, not identity.
- Identity parties are challenging the hegemony of national powers. India’s ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has brought with it corruption, scandal, and ineffective governance. Regional parties offer the weary Indian voter alternatives to the failing national government. They have emerged with policies for growth, combating corruption, and reform. They are driving electoral competition and raising the standards of government.
- The first-past-the-post election system is safeguarding against extreme niche groups. Unlike a proportional representation system, parties in India must win a majority of the votes in their constituency to be elected. Given the diversity within Indian electoral constituencies, parties cannot succeed by winning only where their identity group dominates. As seen in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, parties often must attract voters outside their identity base in order to win elections.
Democracies in transition that are divided along ethnic lines, such as neighboring Nepal and Sri Lanka, will observe that the progression from identity to ideology politics is neither linear nor neat. India still struggles with religious extremism, discrimination, and caste-based violence. Several of India’s most powerful leaders have built careers on intolerance. Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat and a possible prime minister candidate, is notorious for inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric and his questionable handling of anti-Muslim riots in 2002, which killed more than 1,000 people. Violence against Dalits persists, and communal fighting continues to engulf the northeast states of Mizoram and Assam.
However, India’s evolving relationship with identity seems to offer promise. Recent elections suggest that democracy may mature not by ignoring identity, but by permitting competition among identity parties to play out. As democracy consolidates, an increasingly discerning citizenry will rely more on political ideology and performance. As identity’s influence waxes and wanes, a solid constitutional and electoral framework will help to ensure that identity politics contributes to the democratic process.
Regional politics are strengthening Indian democracy. Indians are demanding more of their government, and parties are responding with stronger platforms, more competitive elections, and better governance. Even Narendra Modi, as he looks hopefully to national elections in 2014, is moderating his image with calls for religious unity. India’s relationship with identity offers, paradoxically of course, both promise and caution for India and similar young democracies.
*Mitra is executive director of India’s Liberty Institute, and Killian is an associate at Empowering India and Asia analyst for the Freedom of the Press report.