By Bhanu Dhamija

A two-party system makes governments more responsible, for neither the ruling nor the opposition party has any scapegoats. Above all, it ends political games among parties for the sake of grabbing power.

INDIA’S political parties are engaged once again in unabashed vote-bank politics. They are appeasing people on the basis of religion, caste and class.  There are dozens of parties in the fray and they are causing deep divisions in our society.  What’s worse is that the winners will end up representing only a minority of our people.  That makes for unprincipled coalitions and unstable governments.

But even after years of suffering through these ailments, India has not been able to develop a two-party system.  This is because the causes behind India’s political fragmentation are structural.  They are all due to our flawed system of government.

A two-party system is essential for any nation to build a healthy polity. It is the only way to satisfy the people’s basic democratic desire to know the majority view on any issue. This makes people more accepting of electoral and legislative decisions, and creates a decisive and participatory democracy.  Knowing the two extreme views also allows centrist policies to emerge, which can have even wider consensus.  A two-party system also makes governments more responsible, for neither the ruling nor the opposition party has any scapegoats.  Above all, it ends political games among parties for the sake of grabbing power.

Besides, what’s the alternative to a two-party system? A one-party system is no democracy.  And a multi-party system is a very slippery slope, bringing us back to all the drawbacks described above.

This doesn’t mean however that a two-party system should be decreed.  Such a diktat goes against democratic principles, nor can it be practically enforced.  Factionalism is in the nature of man, and it’s an inalienable right.  Also, sometimes multiple parties can be very useful to shake things up and provide alternatives.  So the ideal situation is to have a system that has a tendency to bring about two parties, but will work just as well with more.

India’s system of government requires two, and only two, parties to work effectively, while it encourages parties to fragment and multiply.  On top of this, India’s unique federal structure gives impetus to the formation of more and more state and regional parties.  As a result, there are more than 1,800 registered parties in the country today. The best description of why India’s parliamentary system works well with only two parties comes from Walter Bagehot, in his 1867 seminal work, The English Constitution.  He explained that “the defining characteristic of that government is the choice of the executive ruler by the legislative assembly; but when there are three parties a satisfactory choice is impossible.”   In short, governance suffers when there are more than two parties.  We all know how coalitions affect the choices for the Prime Minister or Chief Minister, and their cabinet members.

Ironically, the same basic feature of the parliamentary system — that power is handed to parties, not individual leaders — also encourages the formation of new parties.  To gain influence in Parliament, every leader wants his own outfit.  This begins an endless process of fragmentation.  Leaders run their parties as fiefdoms, because they are not regulated, and pick their party candidates at will. Those who are not selected by these bosses start their own political parties.

Then there is the structural problem of India not having sufficient seats in Parliament vis-à-vis the population.  An Indian Member Parliament represents about 22 lakh people, while a US House member only about 7 lakh.  So those who want to run for office but do not get selected by the existing parties, have to go out on their own.

The structural factor that causes the worst kind of fragmentation is that all elections are small.  Candidates have to win only a state assembly or Lok Sabha constituency, not a statewide or nationwide election.  Small constituencies make it possible to win elections by buying a few votes or inflaming a small group’s feelings about caste or religion. This makes it easy for individuals to form parties and try their hand at influencing a vote-bank. The 1971 delinking of national and state elections also created a huge incentive for fragmentation of parties.  Supporters of a local issue or from a small caste can bring a small-time leader to power.  Once his party gets some traction in state elections, it can also win a few seats in Parliament.  This causes the biggest mushrooming in the number of India’s parties.

Duverger’s Law ‘dead parrot’?

All parliamentary systems have a tendency to fragment political parties. A recent study by the London School of Economics concluded that “All the major Westminster-system countries have shown strong trends towards multi-partism.” LSE researchers studied the failure of Duverger’s Law in many democracies. French political scientist Maurice Duverger postulated in 1951 that “a simple-majority single-ballot system favours the two-party system.” Since India, UK and the US have this First-Past-The-Post voting system — only one representative is elected from each constituency — all these countries should only have two parties. But the study discovered that this law fails in the UK as well as in India. Lead researcher Patrick Dunleavy concluded that “outside the USA, First-Past-The-Post voting has no tendency at all to produce two-party politics.” He declared the law “a dead parrot.”

But Duverger’s Law is not dead.  It applies to India, except that it applies to each of its elections separately.  Candidates from only two of our parties have any real chance of winning.  But since India holds only small constituency elections — for MLAs or MPs — two parties emerge in only those elections, not nationally.  Political scientist Yogendra Yadav came to the same conclusion in 1999.  He wrote, “Duverger’s Law does work in India too, except that it works at the state level.”

This means is that if India wishes to have a two-party system, it must have a nation-wide election.  It is the US presidential election, held nationwide, that compels various parties to come together on centrist platforms, so that two parties emerge.  It’s not that the US has no other parties, but that the country always coalesces behind the top two. India has also seen the usefulness of having a two-party system.  Two broad multi-party coalitions — the NDA and the UPA — have given the nation much-needed reprieve from the periods of instability.  But these coalitions represent only political expediency.  Which is why President Abdul Kalam implored the nation in 2007 to “rapidly evolve as a stable, two- party system.”  Let’s fulfil the former President’s dream, and rid ourselves of vote-bank politics.


[Author is the Founder Divya Himachal newspaper, author Why India Needs the Presidential System]

This article was first published on The Tribune on 22/02/2017.