More than the extent and depth of these changes, the nature of these changes constitutes a more compelling reason for a relook at the party system. For these changes, big or small, do not fit into the dominant narratives of Indian politics. Hence the knee-jerk response to some of these changes. Typically, what catches the eyes is the changing fortunes of individual political parties: the sudden decline of the Congress, the BJP’s dramatic rise to power, the BSP’s take off and so on. The underlying change in the structure of political
competition itself is less noticed and inadequately analysed. Similarly it is easy to note an increase in electoral volatility but its causes are not well understood. There is a lot of talk of politics being increasingly shaped on the basis of social cleavages like caste and community, but the change from the past is insufficiently mapped.
The ‘nineties have unleashed several independent yet simultaneous trajectories. The intensity of electoral competition has increased with the rise in electoral volatility. This has been accompanied by something of a participatory upsurge. The level of politics has shifted from the ‘all-India’ to the states. The ‘national’ electoral verdict appears no more than an aggregation of state level verdicts. All these changes have been accompanied by a change in the idiom of politics. All this adds up to quite a messy picture. Messy, not only because many of these dimensions are intertwined, but also because we do not understand many of these very well and lack a frame to see their inter-connections. No wonder, we are unclear about the durability of these changes. Are these changes here to stay? Or, are these only precursors to something else? A somewhat jumbled picture arising out of empirical complexity, future uncertainty and under-theorisation marks any attempt to map Indian politics of the nineties.
The present essay seeks to address this messy picture. We treat this apparent mess as an intellectual puzzle. We aim at defining this puzzle and situating it in a historical and comparative perspective. Historical, in that we need to trace the trajectory through which India’s party system evolved since democratic political competition was instituted after independence. And, comparative, in that we compare different patterns of political
competition obtaining in the different states of India. Both these exercises, especially the latter, are badly in need of academic attention in India. There is little in the existing scholarly literature that compares to, say, to the exercise undertaken by Lipset and Rokkan (1967) in their celebrated essay in which they situate the party competition in Europe in the comparative historical sociology of...