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‘Fourth Party System’

Ques. Contemporary India witnessing the rise of ‘Fourth Party System’ premised on a unique set of political principles, showing a clear break with what came before. Discuss.

    • Yogendra Yadav argues that a new electoral system commences whenever an observer can “detect a destabilisation of [an old system] and its replacement by a new pattern of electoral outcomes as well as its determinants.”
    • The victory of BJP in 2014 and then 2019 is viewed as a system defining phenomena in the study of electoral politics of India (Palshikar) with BJP becoming the first party since 1989 to win a parliamentary majority.
    • There is broad consensus that India’s electoral history—from the inaugural post-independence general election in 1952 until the 16th Lok Sabha elections in 2014—can be roughly divided into three electoral orders:
      • 1952- 1967- Congress System (Rajni Kothari)
      • 1967-1989- Growing regional politics
      • 1989- 2014- Coalition era
    • Milan Vaishnav and Jamie Hintson argue that in order to evaluate whether India has truly entered a new era of politics, it is necessary to clarify the precise attributes of the third-party system against which any future change can be measured:
      • First, the absence of a central pole in national politics between 1989 and 2009 is the central feature of the third-party system.
      • Second, the third-party system was an era of political fragmentation. The number of parties contesting elections surged after 1989 as the Congress order broke down.
      • Third, electoral contests became markedly more competitive with reduction in victory margins and a drop in share of candidates winning outright majority of votes in their constituencies.
      • Fourth, the entire political system became highly federalized with honeymoon and anti-incumbency effects at the state level directly impacting national polls, but the intensity of the effect depended on the proximity of the two polls.
      • Fifth, voter turnout surged at the state level while national political mobilization cooled.
      • Finally, there was a clear change in the social composition of the representative class with SC/ OBCs in greater percentage.
    • There are certain changes that have been observed since the ‘third party system’ that point to the rise of a ‘fourth party system’:
    • Multipolarity to Unipolarity: In 2014, the BJP won 282 out of 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, while its NDA coalition partners earned another 53 seats. Milan Vaishnav points to the importance of this event:
      • First, the BJP won India’s first single-party majority in the Lok Sabha since 1984, the year the Congress Party under Rajiv Gandhi won an overwhelming mandate in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
      • Second, 2014 was the first time in post-independence history that a single party other than the Congress had claimed a majority of seats in parliament.
      • Third, although the BJP won a majority of seats off of just 31 percent of the vote, it exceeded its previous best performance (25.6 percent in 1998) by a significant margin.
    • The BJP, in 2019, earned 37.4 percent of the all-India vote and won 303 seats, the best results for any party since 1989 and 1984, respectively with crucial inroads into new territories including eastern India. Secondly, he BJP also increased its support from nearly all Hindu caste groups- upper castes, OBCs, Dalits and tribals.
    • Reduction in Political Fragmentation: While the number of parties may not have declined, Vaishnav underlines the declining effective number of parties based on the votes won by them in general elections. This metric has been the lowest since the rise of BJP with regional parties losing ground to a domineering hegemonic force in the form of the BJP.
    • Weaker, not stronger, political competition: One of the ways of measuring the same is the victory margins, which since 1977 had steadily declined till 2014 when there was a sharp reversal of this trend. The average margins of victory further increased in 2019. Another way of characterizing the competitive environment is to examine the vote share of the winning candidate argues. In 2019, 63 percent of candidates won their respective races with more than 50 percent of the vote—the highest share since 1984.
    • Weakening Federalisation of National Elections: Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar argue how in third party system, national elections were ‘derivative’ of state one. There have been 2 main changes in this process even though state-level competition still continues to shape national politics in that state:
      • In the 2019 elections, the co-relation between honeymoon/anti-incumbency at state level with national elections broke down completely as witnessed in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan with the Congress vote share plummeting and BJP’s rising. According to Vaishnav, recent data points suggest that state and national verdicts have become partially decoupled.
      • Secondly, contends Vaishnav, both the 2014 and 2019 elections, Modi managed to presidentialize a parliamentary election by making the election principally a vote on his leadership.
      • One final aspect of the weakening federal character of elections is the change in the balance of power between national and regional parties. In 2019, Congress’ share drop to 20% while that of regional parties came down to 43.2%.
    • Heightened Voter mobilization in National Elections: Vaishnav argues that 2014 exhibits a clear break in voter turnout, when India recorded its highest turnout, at 66.4 percent. This degree of voter mobilization was undoubtedly a reflection of two factors:
      • widespread frustration with the incumbent Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime and,
      • the excitement around the candidacy of Narendra Modi.
      • In 2019, according to data provided by the Election Commission of India (ECI), 67.2 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots. The gap between national turnout and state turnout is also narrowing.
    • Another major factor in voter turnout is gender. In 2019, for the first time in Indian electoral history, male and female turnout rates were virtually at parity, a result of a combination of demand-side and supply- side shifts: Growing female education and empowerment, more dense information environment and ECI’s stepped-up efforts to reduce the gender turnout gap.
    • Caste and Social Composition: In the third-party system, jatis lost their salience as the debate shifted to the umbrella-like varna groupings in the wake of the Mandal Commission report and its aftermath. According to Vaishnav, the fourth party system, these larger umbrella groupings consisting of multiple jatis appear to have lost their import and politics has returned to the construction of jati-level alliances but with a twist.
      • One of the BJP’s great successes in many north Indian states, including Uttar Pradesh, has been to undermine the larger caste categories in an effort to create a wedge between dominant jatis and subordinate groupings e.g., by combining non-Jatav SC and non-Yadav OBC voters to drive out SP and BSP in UP.
      • The fourth party system also heralds a shift on a second dimension of social identity, which is the social composition of India’s elected representatives-with the trend of declining gap between number of Upper/intermediate caste and OBC/SC caste MPs reversing since 2009. Another striking feature is the dwindling number of Muslim candidates.
    • Emergence of BJP as system-defining party: As a result of all these changes, Vaishnav contends that BJP has emerged as a system defining party. This mirrors the second phase of party system for Yogendra Yadav with national election verdicts functioned as referenda on Congress rule and no impact of local specificities:
      • Major parties contesting the 2019 elections, with relatively few exceptions, positioned themselves as either supportive of Modi and the BJP or vehemently opposed to them.
      • The opposition forged a series of state-specific alliances that were explicitly constructed on an anti-BJP platform (anti-Indira front in 1977).
      • Similarly in state elections too BJP has more often than not refused to project a chief ministerial candidate, instead preferring to campaign on brand Modi.
    • In 2018, Suhas Palshikar characterized the BJP under Modi as a classic example of a hegemonic political party comprising of two components– ideology and electoral performance. BJP’s twin emphases on Hindu nationalism and what he calls a “new developmentalism” have allowed the party to saturate the political space in India.
    • Future of Fourth Party System: What more changes will come around in Indian party system remains to be seen. Further the issues of backward castes, liberalization, communalization (CAA, Delhi Riots, Lynchings etc), lopsided development (Farmers’ protests, migrant crisis) continue to persist.
    • India’s first past the post system continues to create situations that play a defining role in the Indian political system. Further the issue of governance has become a talking point. Moreover, what role the new entrants like AAP come to play remains to be seen.
    • Importantly, the role of Covid19 and the associated mismanagement, particularly the second wave, can have a crucial impact on both state elections as well as the general election in 2024.
    • This can have an impact on political fortunes of BJP due to 3 main reasons:
      • For one, the pandemic has come home to the Indian elite, upper middle class, middle class, and the neo-middle class, who have been traditional supporters of BJP.
      • Two, the suffering of citizens is today getting channelled as anger — at governments in general, and the Centre in particular due to the oxygen and hospital crisis in the second wave on one hand and no halt to Kumbh and West Bengal on the other.
      • Finally, the second wave will intensify the economic crisis. While the corporate India finds its feet, the larger masses continue to witness greater poverty and deprivation. An estimate by Krishna Ram and Shivani Yadav shows that around 150-199 million additional people will fall into poverty in 2021 and there will be an overall increase in poverty by 15-20 per cent, making around half of the country’s population poor.
    • On the other hand, despite the Covid hit, scholars like Manu Joseph believe that it is unlikely to damage BJP severely. According to Aditi Dayal, though COVID-19 will give voters something new to evaluate the parties on, it is a short-term factor and will not destabilize the BJP’s support base, which identifies with the party mostly because of ideological reasons.

     

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