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Is Small Beautiful?

Suhas Palshikar ( is a political commentator, and former teacher of politics and public administration at the Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune.


Recently, there has been a sudden eruption of swabhiman (Marathi word for self-respect)—not of the Periyar variety—in Maharashtra. First, the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatna split and then a disgruntled Congress leader (Narayan Rane) left the party and formed a separate one calling it Maharashtra Swabhimani Paksh (MSP). These two developments are insignificant in themselves as both parties barely have influence in one parliamentary constituency each, but they draw attention to two different but interrelated processes that are under way not only in Maharashtra but also elsewhere. One is the continuous formation of new “parties” and the other is the ongoing fragmentation of larger parties. Both these processes have the same effect. They make party competition more uncertain and fluid.

Groups and individual political actors jumping the Congress ship is not an unexpected occurrence. In fact, the process has been surprisingly slow and halting. When the Congress party lost in 1996, many of its factions quickly left and formed separate parties resulting into fragmentation of the Congress in the absence of both the glue of power and the anchor of a strong leadership. Now, with the disastrous defeat of 2014, a similar prospect stares the party in the face. So far, although individual defections have occurred, no major faction from within it has come out to form a separate party. With Amarinder Singh (Chief Minister, Punjab) and Siddaramaiah (Chief Minister, Karnataka) being given adequate space at state level, the Congress may just have averted a more dramatic disintegration of the party so far.

State parties, too, are facing a crisis. Divergent assessments of their future had emerged in the wake of the 2014 elections. On the one hand, it was argued that the role of state parties would now diminish considerably in terms of their role and relevance in national-level politics.1 In contrast, it was pointed out that the strength of state parties—both in terms of seats and vote share—had not changed much and that they would continue to play a significant role in the political process.2 Indeed, the latter prognostication appeared to be more accurate as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) posted a landslide victory in Delhi, Nitish and Lalu Prasad Yadav came together to defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Bihar and the All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the All India Trinamool Congress (henceforth, Trinamool Congress) found no difficulty in retaining power in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, respectively. So much so, that for a brief moment, Nitish, Arvind Kejriwal and Mamata Banerjee were identified as possible candidates and key opposition figures against the BJP. However, the resilience of most state parties has not necessarily made them invincible or internally stable. Instead, many state parties seem to be headed for fragmentation. The Biju Janata Dal might collapse any time, the AIADMK is in shambles, and Mukul Roy represents the problem in and of the Trinmool Congress. If the Samajwadi Party faced a severe crisis before the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is facing it after the debacle in these elections.

Fragmentation and State Parties

So, by the time of the next parliamentary election, we are likely to have a larger number of substate or subregional, small parties playing an important role in shaping political competition locally. Since 1996, the number of parties having won only one to three seats each has increased from 10 to 20, while the total number of parties having representation in the Lok Sabha has risen from 28 in 1996 to reach a high of 39 in 1998 and 2004, and remained 36 in 2009 and 2014.3 We can expect this number to remain more or less the same but with more parties winning under three seats each. This would take further the process of fragmentation of political parties that has been going on for over two decades.

The BJP seems to have anticipated this and begun to intervene in this process. In the case of Rane in Maharashtra, the BJP is said to have encouraged him to form a separate party and then join the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). In West Bengal too, the BJP seems to be favourable to Mukul Roy floating a party rather than joining the BJP directly. This may be a tactical move in view of the controversial nature of both these personalities. Nevertheless, this could as well be a strategic consideration because if there is fragmentation of competition too, the BJP would stand to gain. Moreover, with small parties multiplying, the options for the BJP to choose its future allies become wider. Currently, the BJP does not require allies because it has clear majority in the Lok Sabha. But since the dramatic victory of 2014, the BJP has nominally maintained the NDA and even given ministerial berths to allies. The politics of coalitions has helped it in gaining power for the first time in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). It has also helped the BJP retain a toehold in governments of many states of North East. Though it has strong allies in J&K, Bihar and Maharashtra, the BJP is more comfort­able with smaller allies like the Lok Janshakti Party in Bihar or the Republican Party of India (RPI—Athawale faction) and MSP. Such small partners can be played off against each other and together can be used to dispense with (or at least to counterbalance) the relatively larger partners and their demands. Most importantly, smaller parties are more like groups or platforms and they can become interim political tools to alienate popular opinion away from the regionally stronger party. Such platforms can be gradually disbanded or discarded once the BJP has managed to amalgamate their social base.

But, beyond the immediate concerns and tactics of the BJP, it is necessary to take into account factors that contribute to the formation and sustenance of small parties and what small parties imply.

Personal Ambition or Dissent?

Small parties often emerge out of the personal ambition (sometimes imagination) of a leader. In fact, barring the Loksatta Party earlier, and AAP and Swaraj Abhiyan Party now, small parties are exclusively negotiating counters for the political accommodation of only a single leader or at the most a few ones. In fact, such accommodation and power sharing are so personalised that any attempt to analyse them and draw more general conclusions from their behaviour would be futile. Beyond the personal ambitions of a few leaders, the other factor that contributes to emergence and sustenance of small parties is the fragmented nature of “public” interest. The personality factor is thus often combined with interests of some small community and/or small territorial region. While smaller states in the North East have always thrown up this combination, experience from Tamil Nadu also shows the same pattern with, of late, Maharashtra too adopting the same trend.

On the one hand, this is because India’s politics and governance have failed to throw up truly accommodative policies encompassing all “publics.” The plundering tendency dominating India’s capitalist development and abdication by the politi­cal elite of its responsibility to broad-base the development model have meant that regions within states, districts within regions and communities within districts not only get left out of the process of development but are oppressed in the name of development. This often provides an objective basis to parties that choose to focus on very narrow social base spatially or in terms of communities. It then becomes tough to distinguish between personalised ambitions of some leaders and genuine but localised discontents as drivers of small parties.

On the other, party fragmentation and formation of small parties are caused and sustained by the way parties are organised and managed in India. The Congress traditionally had a very loose and federal character woven together by power and national leadership. That model of party organisation was predicated on genuine pluralism of voices and ability to broker power among rival claimants at all levels. As is well known, from Indira Gandhi’s times, this plural character was corroded, and subsequent leadership of the party has only limited experience and capacity to function within a pluralist frame resulting in organisational anarchy. The Communists, who did have a “theory” of party organisation, besides taking a distorted view of that theory, have always suffered from ideological fragmentation. As they lost social base in most parts of the country, the organisational theory of the party became irrelevant because of the attrition of cadres.

The third party, having a semblance of organisation, is the BJP. The complex structures that have emerged from the “RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) parivar” have always allowed the party to draw on reserved armies of workers, take diverse positions on controversial issues and also keep rotating its middle-level leadership. But 2014 might have changed that. The influx of “outside” elements not necessarily amenable to RSS–BJP’s internal organisational practices and a megalomaniac leadership willing to steamroll pre-existing patterns of organisation may undermine its organisational abilities. Above all, the BJP would be unable to stem the formation of small parties because of its homogenising tendency. A party that is ideologically uncomfortable with diversity would not be able to dissuade groups and communities from forming separate parties.

Of course, the BJP would not be too worried about this phenomenon. As a dominant party, at least in the short run, it would be able to handle and negotiate with small parties, while the opposition would find itself more fragmented and disjointed on account of the legion of small parties.

If one were to think beyond the immediate fortunes and electoral outcomes, what does one make of small parties? There is an easy and romantically democratic approach to small parties that says the more the merrier and small is beautiful; that many small parties would mean much more effective representation of many small interests. The other, more guarded approach would be to be cautious about the fragmentation, not just of parties, but of the idea of representation and of public interest. If parties are expected to aggregate and channelise the making of an acceptable and accommodative public interest, then it is worthwhile to ask if small is always beautiful.


1 Suhas Palshikar, “A New Phase of the Polity,” Hindu, 23 May 2014.

2 Kailash makes a nuanced argument that regionalist parties continued to do well in 2014 while regionally located parties did not perform so well (K K Kailash, Regional Parties in the 16th Lok Sabha Elections, Economic & Political Weekly, 27 September 2014, Vol 49, No 39, pp 64–71). See also, Tillin Louise (2015), “Regional Resilience and National Party System Change: India’s 2014 General Elections in Context,” Contemporary South Asia, Vol 23, No 2, pp 181–97.

3 For details, see Yadav Yogendra and Suhas Palshikar, “Between Fortuna and Virtu: Explaining the Congress’ Ambiguous Victory in 2009,” Economic & Political Weekly, 26 September, Vol 44, No 39, p 38 and Suhas Palshikar and K C Suri, “India’s 2014 Lok Sabha Elections: Critical Shifts in Long Term; Caution in the Short Term,” Economic & Political Weekly, 27 September, Vol 49, No 39, p 40.

Updated On : 16th Oct, 2017


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