India's return to one-party rule

With the victory of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's Congress Party in recent elections in eight of the nine states that chose new assemblies, the process of India's return to one-party rule is nearly complete. This process began in January when Congress (I) -- the "I" stands for Indira -- won two-thirds of the parliamentary seats in national elections.

The Janafa coalition has disintegrated. It had been in power for almost three years, March 1977 to January 1980 -- the only period since India's independence from the British in 1947 when the Congress Party did not rule. Other political parties also present an ineffectual opposition to Mrs. Gandhi in the Parliament.

Mrs. Gandhi's party now controls governments in 12 of the 22 Indian states. More than two-thirds of the Indian population of over 650 million is in these 12 states. Considering the enormous power and political savvy of Mrs. Gandhi, there is little doubt that some of the states currently governed by the opposition will soon be dominated by the Congress (I).

A lack of top-level political talent is generally considered essential to the acceptance of one-party rule by the population in the hird-world countries. But few third-world countries can match India's reservoir of political leadership.

The Indian voters, it appears, value democracy and freedom. By defeating Mrs. Gandhi and her party in 1977, they made it clear that they were opposed to her authoritarian rule. Yet, Indian voters have now made the Congress (I) the single dominant party in the country.

Caste is often considered a major determinant of Indian voting behavior. Parties nominating candidates for elections generally consider if their castes match with those of the constituents. The Indian voters, however, are more concerned about things much more mundane, especially the availability and the price of necessities such as sugar, kerosene, and even onions.

Mrs. Gandhi had won the parliamentary elections primarily by persuading the electorate that she would make such commodities available at reduced prices. Her election promises, made a few months ago, are far from fulfilled, but the voters have given her another mandate in the state elections.

Two of the central elements of the Indian political parties are the factions and the leaders' personalities. It is because of the factions within the opposition parties that effective alliances among them could not be formed against Mrs. Gandhi's party in the parliamentary and the state elections of this year. Mrs. Gandhi's party is not entirely free of factions; however, it is remarkably united at this time. Perhaps the recruitment of younger individuals, who have not yet developed separate loyalties, is responsible for the relative lack of factions within the Congress (I).

The opposition parties do have leaders such as Morarji Desai, Jagjiwan Ram, and even Charan Singh (he succeeded Desai as prime minister), who have some charismatic appeal for the electorate. However, their recent record in government, when they were unable to curb the rising prices of essential commodities, has have them poor rivals to Mr. Gandhi.

A question being raised in India as well as in the Western nations is: Will the return to one-party dominance in India increase the probability of the imposition once again of authoritarian rule by Mrs. Gandhi? If India's experiment in democracy with a single dominant party provides any guidance, one-party rule does not necessarily lead to authoritarian rule. The absence, however, of a strong opposition capable of defeating the party in power and then running the government effectively does not make it easier for the dominant party to impose such rule.

It could be argued that the Indian voters would not tolerate authoritarian rule. They have given evidence of their preference and support for a democratic form of government. However, by electing the candidates of the Congress (I) Party, the voters have indicated that they are willing to risk their freedoms for the hope of lower prices for essential goods. It is hard to believe that the excesses of Mrs. Gandhi's emergency regime (June 1975 to March 1977) have been forgotten so soon.

Inflation and the related economic problems of India cannot be resolved unless its population growth is checked. Since the forced sterilization issue was a major factor in Mrs. Gandhi's defeat in 1977, she may not take strong measures to curb the growing population.

If the economic problems of India continue unabated, the unrest, already prevalent in some parts of the country, increases, Mrs. Gandhi may again be tempted to impose an authoritarian rule. Her party's dominance would certainly make it easier for her to give authoritarian rule the stamp of parliamentary approval.

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