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By Anna Sarkissian
Stepping up to the ballot box, India’s 714 million voters have ample choice; in the 2004 election, 230 political parties entered the race.
Political science professor Csaba Nikolenyi’s recently published book, Minority Governments in India: The Puzzle of Elusive Majorities sheds light on the almost unstoppable proliferation of political parties in the world’s most populous democracy.
“Theoretically, India is very interesting. It has a party system it wasn’t supposed to have,” Nikolenyi says.
He writes that the current electoral system, inherited from the British, is structured to facilitate majority rule, not power sharing.
Between 1989 and 2004, no majority governments were elected. The usually dominant Indian National Congress Party, which has consistently governed since independence, took a back seat to a large number of smaller groups who formed coalitions.
Nikolenyi argues that without a decisive mandate in parliament, there is a risk of undermining the link between state and society and effectively weakening the “legitimate foundations of the country’s democratic establishment.”
In order to understand the forces that make this happen, he spent a year in India conducting fieldwork outside Bangalore and in Delhi.
In Chapter three, Nikolenyi describes the effects of anti-defection legislation introduced in 1985. Though it was designed to keep the Congress majority together, it ended up discouraging new large parties from forming.
Fragmentation did have its benefits, though. Regional groups that were previously underrepresented could now elect leaders to speak on their behalf. With 28 states and seven union territories, India’s complex society has many cleavages, from language to culture and religion.
“Up until seven or eight years ago, the focus was on understanding India. Now we see a transition toward understanding and drawing comparisons with other countries,” Nikolenyi adds.
This suits his comparative approach well. Previously, he has studied the politics of government stability in East-Central Europe, causes and consequences of electoral coalitions in post-communist democracies and anti-defection legislation in India and Israel. Nikolenyi hopes to return to India for further research into the politics of parliamentary defections.
Minority Governments in India: The Puzzle of Elusive Majorities was published by Routledge in fall 2009 as part of their Contemporary South Asia Series.