THE recent General Elections have brought to the fore the strength and weakness of India's infant democracy. They speak with such clear accents that it would be criminal to ignore them. Rarely has any nation been given such an opportunity to discover and combat its weaknesses and foster its sources of strength.

In round figures, 112,300,000 voters participated in the recent elections as against 103,800,000 in the previous General Elections of 1952. The percentage of voters increased from 44.9 to 49.2. In Rajasthan, one of the politically backward states of the Indian Union, the votes polled jumped from less than 44 percent to over 57 percent. The Indian voter has become vote conscious.

The earlier General Elections had shown that, like her agriculture, India's political life suffered from fragmentation. The recent poll has shown that forces of consolidation are at work: as against 76 parties in 1952, only 26 political parties entered the elections this year. The number of candidates for the Lok Sabha (the House of the People) declined from 1,800 to 1,456, and that for the State Assemblies fell from 15,000 to 9,840. The four major parties, recognized as "national" by the Election Commission, increased their combined vote from 73 million in 1952 to 84 million in 1957, while the vote of all other parties, as well as of independent candidates, fell from 32,300,000 to 30,600,000.

All the four major parties improved their positions in varying proportions. The ruling Congress Party increased its vote in the elections to the Lok Sabha by more than 6,500,000, and its share in the total poll by 1.5 percent; it won 366 seats, 12 more than last time. The combined strength of all members of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha dropped from 132 to 122, thus accentuating the majority of the Congress Party. The Communist Party more than doubled its vote--polling 6,100,000 additional votes--and increased its share in the total from 5 to 9.8 percent. Its representation in the Lok Sabha increased slightly, from 26 to 29. The Jan Sangh, a Hindu communal organization, more than doubled its vote and received 5.7 percent of the total poll. Its representation increased from three seats to four in the Lok Sabha. The Praja Socialist Party (P.S.P.) superficially seems to have suffered a setback: its vote fell from 17,300,000 to 11,700,000, a drop from 16.4 to 10 percent of the total poll; its representation declined from 20 to 18. But the earlier total included votes of two rival socialist parties; for a fair comparison with 1952, nearly 3,000,000 votes should be added to the P.S.P. total in 1957, on which basis the party's decline would appear as marginal. Further, while the Communists contested 115 seats this year as against 69 in 1952, the P.S.P. contested only 175 seats in 1957 as against twice that number in 1952. The P.S.P. with a smaller vote had consolidated its position.[i]

The elections to the State Assemblies tell the same tale. The Congress Party won 1,889 or about 65.1 percent of the seats in the state legislatures. In 1952, its share was almost the same. The Socialists increased their representation from 125 to 195, the Communists from 181 to 189 and the Jan Sangh from 34 to 46.

The figures merely sketch the surface. To get an understanding of the unfolding complexities of India's political mind we must dive deeper.

The recent elections were profoundly affected by the reorganization of States, carried out mostly on linguistic lines. Where the linguistic aspirations of the people were satisfied, the Opposition took a beating; where the dissatisfaction rankled deep, the Congress had to retreat. Of the 14 States in India, four (Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir, and Assam) were unaffected by the reorganization. Of the ten affected, four (Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Madras and Mysore) were happy with the new boundaries obtained. Three (Bombay, the Punjab and Orissa) were furiously dissatisfied, while the remaining three (Bihar, West Bengal and Kerala) were neither satisfied nor actively perturbed. The voting patterns in these States, with the exception of Kerala, generally conform to the reactions of the people to the reorganization.

In the State of Madras (a so-called "sated" state, meaning one where the linguistic aspirations of the people are satisfied) the Congress Party's vote increased by 7 percent, while the Communist vote shrank by 3 percent, and votes of smaller parties and independents fell by as much as 15 percent. The consolidation of the Congress Party was remarkable. By effecting some land reforms and by satisfying the linguistic aspirations of the people, the Congress cut the ground from under the feet of the Communists. The Congress won 151 out of 205 seats in the State Assembly. The Communists, who loomed large in the last elections, won only four seats.

As a detailed example of the process, let us look at the Telengana area of Andhra Pradesh, where the Communists had staged armed struggles some years back, and where in the last elections their strength had been considerable. The Congress made significant gains in the State elections, as the following table shows:

1952 1957
Votes Percent Votes Percent Seats
Polled Polled Won
Congress 1,196,292 37.5 1,720,507 46.5 68
Communists 971,677 31.2 941,309 25.6 22
P.S.P. 423,031 13.4 211,587 5.7 1
Others 595,732 17.9 815,366 22.2 14
Total 3,186,732 3,688,769

The entire increase in the number of voters was picked up by the Congress Party. The Communists have been literally "contained;" their share in the total vote went down from a third to a quarter. The separation of Andhra Pradesh seems to have paid good dividends to the ruling party.

In "unsated" states, on the other hand, the Opposition found favorable ground. The classic instance is Bombay State. There all the Opposition parties united and more than doubled their representation in the legislature. Particularly in the Maharashtra area, the Congress vote slumped from 55.9 percent to 38.9 percent and it won barely 34 out of 134 seats to the State Assembly from that region. It is significant that numerically the Congress vote declined from 2,740,000 to 2,250,000, that is by less than half a million. But an additional million voters in this election swung the election against the Congress. More recently, it suffered a further defeat in a municipal election, obtaining only 55 of 131 seats in the Bombay City Council.

In Orissa, the Ganatantra Parishad that had spearheaded the State's demands for some parts of Bihar increased its vote and its strength in the State Assembly phenomenally (from 35 to 52 seats). In Assam, though the Congress vote increased by 12.7 percent (from 43.9 to 56.6) and the miscellaneous Opposition vote went down from 34.2 to 23.2 percent, the Congress position in the legislature was weakened by three seats because in the tribal areas the Congress lost 17 out of 18 seats to various tribal organizations, all clamoring for a separate state which had been denied them. In Bihar, the Jharkhand Party, an organization of the tribal people claiming a separate state of their own, not merely maintained but consolidated its hold. The Congress Party, as well as other national parties, has failed to inspire confidence in the tribal people, particularly where they live in compact areas; unless emotional integration is achieved, grave consequences may follow. The recent Naga tragedy is a serious portent that democratic India can ignore only at her peril.

We see, then, that language questions provoke powerful emotions. In South Asia, at least, religious solidarity is yielding place to linguistic affinity as the supreme vehicle of mass emotion. In Pakistan the two wings of the country are today perhaps more language-oriented than religious-minded. In Ceylon, the conflict over language has flared up with a violence unusual for that placid island. Indian leaders have handled the language question with wisdom and dispatch, but it still deserves careful attention and a consistent application of principles and laws.

Satisfaction of linguistic claims, however, does not snuff out regional feelings. In Madras State, for instance, all national parties fared badly against the Congress. The Opposition vote rallied round the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which entered the elections for the first time and polled 13.8 percent of the total vote, winning 15 seats. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam was agitating for a separate sovereign state of the Dravid (Tamil-speaking) people, but it compromised its stand to the extent of soft-pedalling that issue; instead, it played up the hostility of the southerners toward the north and campaigned on the Government's neglect and niggardliness towards the Tamil State of Madras. This plea is raised in different regions and finds a quick response in the hearts of the people. It is interesting to note that the Communists have been emphasizing the same two points in Kerala, both before and since their electoral triumph.

Opposition to the Congress is emerging not in terms of rival national parties but mostly through various regional groupings: Ganatantra Parishad in Orissa, Jharkhand Party and the Janata Party in Bihar, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Madras, Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti in Maharashtra (Bombay State), Maha Gujarat Parishad in Gujarat (Bombay State), and the various tribal organizations in the tribal areas of Assam. Collectively, these parties have won more seats in the State Assemblies and the Lok Sabha than any national party in opposition to the Congress. As a matter of fact, it is not easy for a national party to satisfy and articulate the emotional discontent of a region. When a region wants to express its discontent it prefers a party whose allegiance is to the region alone and whose horizons are limited. This is perhaps the biggest danger that Indian democracy faces during the next 20 years when it will be under the severe strains of economic development.

The dilemma was well brought out in Mysore State, where the recent Assembly elections showed the following voting pattern:

Votes Percentage Seats Won
Congress 3,343,644 50.9 150
P.S.P. 887,928 13.6 18
Communists 123,403 1.9 1
Jan Sangh 83,734 1.3 0
Independents 2,115,761 32.3 39

Against the Congress, insufficient support was found either for the Communists--whose vote increased between 1952 and 1957 from 1.3 to 1.9 percent--or for the Jan Sangh--whose vote fell from 1.5 to 1.3 percent. The P.S.P. evidently is in an advantageous position. But there is a sizable unorganized vote, and once the first flush of the new linguistic unification is over it will rally round a party that will champion the grievances, real as well as fancied, of the State against that universal whipping boy, the Union Government. If the P.S.P. takes a lead in this, its position in other States will be compromised; if it hesitates, a new party, most likely regional in its allegiance and operation, will arise to threaten its hard-won position.

In Kerala, the Communists increased their vote from 920,000 to 2,160,000, mostly at the expense of the P.S.P., the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Independents, and by attracting most of the 630,000 new voters who came to the polls. Though polling only 36.5 percent of the total votes cast, the Communists have formed the state government. To a certain extent this success is due to the fact that they have functioned as the regional party of Kerala. And by that measure they stand to lose in their effort to build their strength in the neighboring States of Madras and Mysore. Already the Communist Government has raised a demand for rectification of boundaries with Madras and Mysore--a demand that the regionalists in those two States will inevitably resent. Can the Communists perform the incredible feat of articulating regional feelings of different regions, which are often conflicting and generally exclusive? If the answer is in the negative, the victory of the Communists in Kerala will prove costly to them.

That the rural and urban votes tend to go in different directions has also been established. West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh demonstrate these tendencies markedly. The Communists and P.S.P. fought the election unitedly against the Congress. The votes of both the major contestants, Congress as well as the "Leftists," increased. But while the left Opposition scored heavily in the metropolitan areas, the Congress consolidated its position in rural Bengal. For example, in Calcutta the Congress lost half its seats (although its percentage of the total vote declined only slightly), while the Communists doubled their representation and the P.S.P. made substantial gains. Conversely, in the predominantly rural district of Midnapore it was the Congress that doubled its representation, while the Communists and Socialists lost several seats. In both districts the Jan Sangh and other parties did poorly.

In a developing economy, next only to regional tensions are the tensions between rural and urban areas or between agriculture on the one hand, and commerce and industry on the other. Once political parties in a democracy get "set" in these molds, as happened in many countries of Europe, then either a sensible longterm policy of coalition has to be worked out, as in the Scandinavian countries, or the result will be tragic failure, as in the East European countries during the inter-war years.

Has the geographical distribution of political forces changed in India? The following table indicates the answer:

North South East West
1952 1957 1952 1957 1952 1957 1952 1957
Congress 1,013 755 378 413 527 488 324 232
P.S.P. 57 58 82 30 55 71 11 36
Communists 6 18 130 65 36 66 1 13
Jan Sangh 24 42 0 0 9 0 0 4
Other Parties 100 59 84 28 117 112 19 43
Independents 100 114 98 110 63 80 20 64

In north India, the smaller parties lost; Independents and Communists registered some gains; the P.S.P. maintained its position; the Jan Sangh nearly doubled its representation. In the rest of India, the Jan Sangh faded out. It remains, even more than before, a party of the north reacting to communal issues that are becoming obsolete. In south India, political disintegration has been halted. Every Opposition party has received setbacks, while the Congress has improved its position. Notwithstanding the spectacular success of the Communists in Kerala, the over-all advantage has gone to the Congress. In east India, the Congress has lost to the Communists and Socialists; in west India, the Congress Party's gains in the rest of Bombay State have been wiped out by its disastrous failure in the Maharashtra region.

In Rajasthan and Orissa, the second-ranking parties were, and continue to be, the Rama Rajya Parishad and the Ganatantra Parishad respectively. The former has lost ground, the latter has moved up. In the Punjab, with the merger of the Akali party with the Congress, the Communists have emerged as the second party. In six States where the P.S.P. was the second party it retained its position, though with depleted strength. In four States where the Communists were the second party, they retain that position, but in two of them--Madras and Andhra Pradesh--their relative position has declined, and in the other two--Kerala and West Bengal--it has improved, spectacularly in Kerala. The Jan Sangh nowhere enjoys the position of a second party.

Political configurations thus remain the same, except that the Socialists are somewhat flattened out while the Communists have more than balanced their losses with gains. Except for these alterations, no other significant changes are visible in the political topography.

The General Elections of 1957 did indicate, however, that the various parties are less stable than they seemed. The Congress undoubtedly commands a number of safe constituencies, but it received some unexpected jolts. The Communists have built up support in Kerala and parts of West Bengal, although elsewhere its support is fluid. Of the 18 P.S.P. candidates elected to the Lok Sabha, only three are old members; 11 members were unseated and 15 new members were elected in constituencies not previously held. In Bihar, P.S.P.'s strength in the Assembly increased from 24 to 31. But 19 of its sitting members were defeated.

If we gather together all these straws in the wind what do we find? What possibilities emerge? How to strengthen the democratic fabric of India?

If we look at the manifestoes of the four principal parties few significant differences are to be seen, except that the Communists stress heavy industry and abuse foreign capital, the Jan Sangh hesitatingly favors free enterprise and rails at Pakistan, while the P.S.P. underscores decentralization and civil liberties. All parties endorse, implicitly if not explicitly, the Five-Year Plan and merely dot the i's and cross the t's in foreign policy. Socialism is no longer the great divide: all are socialists now, and everyone's socialism is diluted in varying degrees.

The elections turned on local grievances, and three issues of universal significance: 1, the Congress Party's monopoly of power and its use of it in an exclusive and partisan manner; 2, lack of responsiveness in the Administration to the people; and 3, corruption and inefficiency in the Congress and its administration. The ruling party has lost ground in north and east India on these grounds alone. In south India, "sated" regionalism has favored Congress; in west India, frustrated regionalism has wreaked vengeance against it. The erosive forces now at work in the north will not take much time to sweep all round. However, the Congress still possesses tremendous assets: if it mends its ways, stoops to conquer and kneels to raise, cleanses its ranks of corruption, it can command an unlimited tenure of power. The cards remain stacked in its favor.

In Rajasthan, the Congress has shown that it can face and overcome feudal opposition. In the Punjab, on the whole, forces of communalism have been repulsed. It is the failure on the economic front--middle-class unemployment, for instance--that plays into the hands of the Communists, as in Kerala and West Bengal.

What happens to the Congress when Nehru disappears? Recent experience shows that loss of its top leader does not destroy a party. When the Jan Sangh's founder, Dr. Shyama Prasad Mookerji, died, his successor, Maulichandra Sharma, went over to the Congress; and yet the Jan Sangh increased its vote from 3.2 to 6.7 million. The president of the Scheduled Castes Federation, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, died recently; its general secretary and its two representatives in the Lok Sabha crossed over to the Congress. The Federation's vote despite everything remained stable at 2,500,000. When the P.S.P.'s veteran chairman, Acharya Narendra Deva, passed away, its top leader, J. P. Narayan, withdrew from politics into Bhoodan work and its mercurial and militant ideologue, Dr. Lohia, split the organization. Leaderless, torn by ideological dissensions, the party yet retained its second position in the country. It seems that Indians who are so responsive to leaders can also achieve working arrangements with the rank and file. Perhaps that will be history's answer to the persistent question, "After Nehru what?"

The Communists have undoubtedly spread out. They now have representatives in every State legislature. They have strengthened their position in the Lok Sabha. In Kerala they have a rare opportunity to act as a magnetic foil to the Congress. They well might feel that the ball is at their feet. With this looming challenge, the Congress will have to shake off its ungainly accretions and the P.S.P. may slough off its lethargy. The fact of being in power in Kerala will cramp the style of the Communists in opposition elsewhere. Their administrative record may disenchant their radical supporters. Inside the party the tension between reformers and revolutionaries will grow.

There are a number of quasi-regional parties like the Peasants and Workers party of Maharashtra, and sectional groupings like the Scheduled Class Federation. The Congress enticed away their leaders but the organizations survive. The Communists will try to infiltrate and take over such organizations. If the major democratic parties can frustrate this through an attitude of genuine good will towards these small groups, the Communists, for all their gains, may find themselves marking time.

No party has gone through such hard times as the P.S.P. That in spite of this it has come out unscathed suggests that it has a place among the people. If it overcomes its earlier split and straightens out its ideological knots it can move forward rapidly in at least half the States of India. Its main hurdle is the tie-up with the Communists in Bengal and Maharashtra. If it fails to snap these ties it must fall a prey to the Communist tactics of rule or wreck. If the P.S.P. fades away it will be because of selfish shortsightedness on the part of its men in Bombay and Calcutta.

It is gratifying to find that religious communities are giving support to different parties increasingly on political grounds. The three major parties enjoy support among all communities, though proportionately the Sikhs and Christians lean toward the Congress. The Moslems seem to be functioning politically once again. Castes are becoming powerful voting lobbies and the lower castes are challenging the established positions of higher caste men. But political parties are not yet organized on a basis of higher against the lower castes. So long as parties retain this mobility, caste pressures may distort but will not disrupt democracy. In terms of age-groups, younger voters tend to favor the Opposition parties, particularly the fringe parties, the Communists and the Jan Sangh. These by themselves, however, do not appear to herald a major shift in the voting pattern.

Indian democracy need not stumble if her economic development quickens and if it is adequately aided to that end. In international relations, to befriend India is to strengthen the vital forces within the country. The political mind of India is neither wholly clear nor firm. But the elements of hope and strength outweigh those of defeat. If democracy loses in India, it will be because of the wanton negligence of its votaries both within and without that ancient land.

[i] Thirteen smaller parties, generally representing special interests like the Scheduled Castes Federation, the Muslim League, or regional affinities like the Ganatantra Parishad, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, polled over 12,000,000 votes and won 45 seats to the Lok Sabha. Independent candidates polled 18,500,000 votes and elected 26 members.

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  • ASOKA MEHTA, former member of the Indian Lok Sabha; Joint Secretary, Praja Socialist Party; former member of the National Executive of the Socialist Party; author of "The Record of India," "Socialism and Peasantry" and other works
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