Tuesday, April 14, 2009

India 4: Parties and Electoral History

India's general election is almost ready to begin, so I want to continue where I left off here, giving some background to the current political situation in the world's largest democracy.

The main political force in independent India has been the Indian National Congress. That organization, whose history I wrote about here, still exists under that name. However, it is often referred to as the Congress Party.

And, in turn, that party has largely been dominated by one family. As I described in this post, in a republic that, officially, has no hereditary succession to office, voters can still choose to perpetuate dynasties.

At the time India became independent, Jawaharlal Nehru was leader of the Congress Party, and he became the first prime minister. Then, in 1951, when the first general election was held under the country's new republican constitution, Congress emerged as by far the largest party in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament. They had a sizable overall majority, with 364 of the 545 seats, with the remainder parceled out among almost two dozen parties.

That sounds similar to two later cases where a dissident movement became a political party, once they were allowed to participate in fully democratic elections. The first was in Poland, when the Solidarity trade union broke the Communists' political monopoly by winning an election in 1989. The second example involves South Africa, where the African National Congress emerged as the governing party, when non-white people were first allowed to vote, in 1994.

After those Polish and South African movements saw off the Communist and National parties, respectively, they dominated the new political scene in those places, until new parties emerged. That is also the case in India, but Congress's hegemony lasted through the general election of 1971.

Nehru stayed in power until his death, in 1964. He was succeeded by Lal Shastri. Shastri had a much more brief tenure as prime minister; he died less than two years after taking office, during a visit to the Soviet Union. Shastri's death led to the first, but not the last, occasion when power passed to a descendant of Nehru.

Nehru's daughter Indira, whose married name was Indira Gandhi, became prime minister in 1966. (That surname causes some confusion; her by-then late husband, Feroze Gandhi, was not closely related to Mohandas Gandhi.)

More on her tumultuous prime ministerial tenure, and death, in the next post in this series.

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