By Gilles Verniers

The 1990s ushered in economic liberalisation. But this happened against a backdrop of deep political instability and fragmented coalitions that only stabilised later in the decade, around the two national parties.

The early 1990s are largely remembered for the beginning of India’s economic liberalisation. One easily forgets that these far-reaching economic reforms took place against a backdrop of deep political instability and fragmentation. Between 1989 and 2007, India had no less than seven governments, including three minority governments.

The turn of the 1990s marked the end of single-majority governments and ushered in the era of coalitions led by VP Singh first, quickly followed in 1990 by Chandra Shekhar’s wobbly coalition. The Congress returned to power in 1991 but in a minority position.

Fragmented electoral outcomes in the mid-1990s led to the formation of short-lived coalition governments. The National Front, again, in 1996, under the leadership of HD Deve Gowda, followed by the United Front government led by IK Gujral who, like his predecessor, did not last a year.

Coalition governments stabilised once they became organised around the two national parties, BJP first, in 1998 and 1999 then Congress, in 2004 and 2009.

The rise of the BJP

The rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as India’s second national party is the most significant political development of this period, alongside the rise of new regional parties.

In the 1996 General Elections, the saffron party won 161 seats, up from 120 in 1991, with a similar vote share (20%). Its vote share increased to 25.6% in 1998 and decreased to 23.8% in 1999, just below Congress in both elections. In 2004, it dropped 44 seats while only losing 1.6% of vote share, enabling the Congress to form the UPA government.

VP Singh was prime minister from 1989 to 1990.

The BJP’s rise took place for the most part in the Hindi belt, where it won 432 of the 653 seats it contested between 1996 and 2004. BJP also scored in Gujarat (69 seats), Maharashtra (48) and Karnataka (44).

The social composition of the BJP over this period remained skewed towards the upper castes. In the 1996 and 1998 elections, upper castes represented 43% of all BJP MPs. Their share later declined to 37% and 31% in 1999 and 2004, owing to shifting electoral support. From what we know about nomination data, upper-caste representation among BJP candidates remained above 40% through these years.

The rise of the regional parties

The second major development is the rise of regional parties and the fragmentation of the party system. Through the 1980s, regional parties gathered 20% of the national vote share on average in general elections. This figure rose to 37% of average vote share between 1996 and 2004, starting at 29% and ending at 44.7% of total vote share.

Over the same period, the overall number of parties contesting Lok Sabha elections increased from 114 parties in 1989 to 216 in 2004.

There were three main sources of regional or state-based parties.

First, parties that emerged from the dislocation of the Janata Parivar, often along specific caste lines. Second, several parties were created as breakaway factions of the Congress. In 1999, Mamata Banerjee left to create Trinamool Congress, while PA Sangma and Sharad Pawar left Congress to create the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), to mention just two examples. The third category are parties that were created out of new forms of mobilisations, particularly among Dalits. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh was one such party.

Impact on representation

One of the effects of the rise of state-based parties was a reshuffle of the representation cards in the Hindi belt, rather than an overall increase of the representation of Other Backward Classes (OBC) and intermediary castes.

In 1996, 71 MPs belonging to these two categories were elected. This figure gradually increased to 75 in 2004.

What changed were caste-party alignments. Over time, more OBCs got elected on the tickets of regional parties and fewer OBCs got elected as representatives of national parties. But it is striking that until 2004, more OBCs and intermediary-caste MPs were elected on national party tickets.

Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda releases balloons in the colours of the National Flag at Shantivan on November 14, 1996, former PM Jawaharlal Nehru's birthday.

Therefore, the interpretation of 1990s politics as a confrontation between exclusively upper-caste national parties and lower-caste parties needs to be nuanced. While state-based parties did promote the representation of backward groups, they also included some upper-caste candidates and MPs. On the other hand, most upper-caste MPs remained elected on national party tickets.

Muslims continued to be excluded

If the rise of regional parties benefited the representation of backward groups, Muslims remained sidelined.

Between 1996 and 2004, they made up 5-6% of all MPs. More precisely, 123 Muslims were elected between 1996 and 2004, out of a total of 2172 MPs. The largest contingent still came from Congress (38 MPs), followed by the Communist Party of India (17) and the Samajwadi Party, created in 1993 (16). Muslims also found modest representation in the Bahujan Samaj Party (10) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (8).

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announces the successful test of a nuclear weapon at Pokhran, at a press conference in New Delhi on May 11, 1998.

Spread over four elections, these numbers reveal that Muslims tend to be marginalised not only in the Lok Sabha, but also within their own parties, with the exception of small Muslim formations such as AIMIM or the Muslim League in Kerala.

Women’s representation rose by a notch

The rise of the BJP as a second national party brought a few more women in the Lok Sabha.

In 1996, 606 women contested against 334 in 1991. Despite this increase, the number of women elected in the Lok Sabha rose only to 42 from the previous 40.

1992 - 2007

The BJP’s performance in 1998 and 1999 brought a few additional women to Parliament (15 in total), a number that would not change much in the course of the three following elections (14 women elected in 1998, 16 in 1999 and 12 in 2004). After a small increase in the overall number of candidates in 1998, the growth rate of women contestants remained as low as it had been in the past.

Party competitiveness vs individual competition

Finally, a widely assumed feature of the 1990s politics is that elections in India became more intensely competitive. At the party level, it is true that the emergence of new parties exerted additional competitive pressure on major players. But not all these new parties immediately obtained representation. In 1998, 29 parties found their way into the Lok Sabha, against 25 parties over the previous two elections. That number would continue to increase to 40 in 1998, and 39 in 1999 and 2004.

At the individual level, however, the share of first-time MPs decreased, compared to the past. In 1998, 44% of all MPs were first-time MPs. This number dropped to 27% in the following election, then to 21% in 1999 and 30% in 2004. Close proximity between elections encouraged parties to field the same candidates. As we have seen earlier, first-timers used to make a majority of MPs in the late 1960s and 1970s

At the constituency-level, the effective number of candidates, a standard measure of electoral competitiveness, remains the same – 2.9 – from the early 1960s to 2019. This means that in each constituency, there are usually two to three strong candidates, the third candidate usually being a distant third. India may have an extraordinarily large number of parties, but most of them compete locally, which limits the effects of fragmentation to the local level.

Similarly, the success ratio of re-running incumbents increased in the late 90s, indicating that if parties found elections to be more competitive, individual contestants and sitting MPs fought paradoxically from slightly more secure positions.

Indian elections have always been competitive. What changed over time is the configuration of competition. During the period of Congress’ dominance, the Congress Party itself integrated electoral competition, making it difficult for most MPs to build long political careers. The emergence of new parties and the redistribution of votes among them over time has made the competitive aspect of electoral politics in India less, rather than more, intense.

(Gilles Verniers is assistant professor of Political Science and co-director, Trivedi Centre for Political Data.)