Emerging Trends And Shifting Paradigms In India’s Electoral Politics: How India Votes

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Emerging Trends And Shifting Paradigms In India’s Electoral Politics

Written by: G. Madhavi Lakshmi


The process of democratic engineering in India and the efforts to expand the democratic space have occupied the spotlight of attention in any analysis of elections in particular and Indian politics in general. In recent years, survey research has provided a window of opportunity to assess the multi-track factors that have contributed to the ushering in of a new phase of competitive democratic electoral politics across the country. This `new politics` has witnessed the Indian citizens asserting their `entitlement` in newer and more significant ways.

A wide range of social and political developments have, on the one hand, been shaped by the changing power equations within the political system and have also influenced the nature, course and direction of electoral politics, on the other. The impact of social change on the working of the electoral process and political institutions, the more `inclusive` nature of electoral politics and participation, the end of one-party domination and the emergence of a competitive party system, the reality of coalition politics, are all a reflection of this trend.

The political developments of the 1990s have clearly contributed to the `federalizing of electoral politics and the empowering of the Indian citizen` (Shastri 2001). A linked development is the more inclusive nature of Indian politics with the `electoral political arena (in the `1990s)… witnessing greater participation and more intense politicization than before` (Yadav 1999:2317). Its political implications are far-reaching and central to the democratic theory debate in the country. This paper attempts to map independent India’s electoral history and provide a framework for the analysis of electoral politics over the last five decades.

The basic hypothesis, which the paper explores, is that the shifting paradigms of India’s electoral politics are firmly rooted in the desire to ensure continuity with change. This paper is divided into four sections. After a brief overview, the second section flags the major milestones in the growth and maturity of India’s electoral democracy. The third section examines recent trends (since the 1990s) in India’s electoral politics and locates the debate in the wider context of the evolution and development of electoral politics in a diverse democratic polity. The fourth section attempts a final overview of the issues highlighted in the paper.

Electoral politics has been witness to a significant shift. Regardless of which way the results go on May 23, Election 2019 would have only cemented the factors underpinning this shift. And, in doing so, it has subtly, yet firmly, redefined the matrix on which election strategies are usually drawn up.

Essentially, what once appeared to be unchallenged assumptions in Indian politics have now been altered, like the way it happened with the advent of regional caste-based parties in the post-Mandal era. The first shift is marked by nationalism as a political argument making a strong comeback. This is not to say that nationalism did not have an appeal until now.

 It’s just that its predominance in, say, the Indira-Rajiv Gandhi era was overshadowed by regional aspirations represented usually by son-of-the-soil leaders at the helm of the backward classes movement. Gradually, a new equilibrium was established where the federal character of India’s polity received its due attention and priority. The Centre itself derived its stability from the support of regional parties in this period namely, of Samajwadi Party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and Trinamool Congress (TMC), among others.

This dynamic has now undergone a change. Regional parties have been forced to construct a national narrative. In these elections, this took the shape of an anti-Modi, pro-secular pitch aimed at protecting the Constitution for which even arch-rivals like Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati were willing to sink their differences to come together. In fact, the talk of a pan-India grand alliance was an effort to project a national agenda, where regional parties were willing to sacrifice old biases for a larger nationalist purpose. While only the results will show whether they achieved any success, it was clearly a response to BJP’s own aggressive nationalist narrative one that questioned the vote-bank and minority appeasement politics of these parties.

It’s important to note here that BJP came from a standpoint where it could not be accused of being anti-federal, like Congress in the past. The 2014 elections were, in fact, a story of a four-time chief minister becoming prime minister on a campaign largely constructed around himself and the Gujarat model.

In contrast, the 2019 campaign was constructed around Narendra Modi’s nationalist credentials built around events such as ‘surgical strikes, the Balakot attack, and an all-encompassing social welfare model. What’s clear is that the pre-eminence of nationalism as a political narrative has made a strong comeback.

The second shift is the redefinition of caste. For a long, we have moved with assumptions that Caste A votes for this party and Caste B vote for that outfit. Has that logic been deemed irrelevant? No. But the configurations and the proportion of the electorate voting on only caste loyalties have tangibly reduced. This also explains why disparate regional parties have sought to combine their old vote-banks to increase numbers. Add to that complication, there are now pure caste-based sub-regional parties looking to strike a deal with this party or other.

The NDA government under Modi has sought to address this through economic intervention by following a more flexible ‘deprived category’ index developed with the help of the Socio-Economic Caste Census, as opposed to the old below poverty line (BPL) concept. The use of Aadhaar to pinpoint individuals within this category and transfer benefits electronically has allowed the government to create a class of beneficiaries that may come from different caste groups but with a similar economic profile. Has this taken away caste from the equation? Absolutely not.

However, it certainly has given value to the economic identity of smaller caste groups, which until now were hoping to corner benefits showing caste solidarity with dominant groups like Yadavs and Jatavs in Uttar Pradesh. In other words, there are now workable, credible options to old caste alliances due to a new paradigm for accessing state resources. Old alliances will try and enforce loyalties. But the 2019 elections have shown that tolerance among younger voters to such assumptions is diminishing. Regardless of the outcome of these elections, political parties will have to start thinking differently on caste because old combinations are gradually fading away.

The final big shift is the total rejection of the sense of entitlement among the elite. Dynastic politicians, be it the Nehru-Gandhi family or those leading regional outfits, are facing a tough time. The campaign against the elite and the privileged have found resonance this time just as it did in 2014. The anger against any sort of sense of entitlement is only going to grow as a more volatile, politically aware younger generation disrupts settled notions of social order. Political parties unable to reflect and accommodate this shift will struggle.

This doesn’t mean that political dynasties will vanish. Dynasts will surely be around, but they will have to redefine their leadership. Let’s not forget that in the past with every new member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, there was churning at the helm and the rungs below. Among the present lot, BJP witnessed such a churn when Modi and Amit Shah took charge. If General Election 2019 is any yardstick, more churns are in the offing, both across parties and political spaces.

However one wishes to look at the 2019 elections, the fact remains that the campaigns conducted were a fundamental marker in India’s journey as it transitions into a digital society driven by cheap data. The steps taken by digital platforms to self-regulate content violations and transparency in political funding are nascent ones, and much more needs to be done. Yet, an important beginning has been made.

Politically, like the BJP and the Congress, a couple of regional parties like the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress and the DMK also embraced digital technologies, but most were not active on digital platforms. This has begun to change. While different parties adapt differently, one thing is clear: cheap data means that the underlying beliefs that drove many of our older assumptions about political mobile stations have seen a tectonic shift. We are just beginning to unravel the effects of this change. Current politics cannot be effectively understood without understanding the contours of this change. While it has opened up multiple possibilities for our politics, it has also thrown up fascinating new questions for research. 


The most salient achievement of India’s political system has been to induce a sense of dynamic equilibrium where the state and market balance one another, and in the process to generate the incentives for both growth and redistribution. A similar process of ideological convergence among India’s mainstream political parties has not taken place with regard to the basic components of national identity. Two conflicting formulations of the idea of India – multicultural secularism as opposed to muscular Hinduism – define an ideological chasm that separates the two main competing coalitions.

As things stand, India today is at a turning point. The state of intense mobilization in which political forces and social groups find themselves in the 2019 parliamentary election constitutes a critical juncture. The outcome remains uncertain. The results of this crucial election will continue to affect the structure of the Indian state as well as its political culture and economic policy for many challenging years to come.

Regardless of the uncertainty of the electoral outcome, the institutional basis of the Indian state and the process of electoral democracy remains solidly entrenched. Therefore, one can safely predict that the country will stay on its democratic course, whatever the result. However, the unresolved structural issues of agriculture and the rural economy, territorial integration in Kashmir and India’s Northeast, the rights of forest dwellers threatened by encroaching markets, and the emotive issue of cow protection will continue to haunt democratic India in the form of sporadic violence and local conflict, despite the overall stability of the political system.






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