Vijdan Mohammad Kawoosa

Number of parties contesting Indian elections is at its highest, but expected winners remain unchanged.

Besides nearly a billion voters and more than a million polling stations, Indian general elections are big for another reason: the sheer number of aspirants.

The two large parties that have led most of India’s governments so far have fielded 769 candidates this year.

The two large parties that have led most of India’s governments so far have fielded 769 candidates this year.

Then there are more than 30 other parties contesting this year that won at least one seat in the previous election in 2019.

That is not all. Hidden behind a heated contest between large parties are more than 700 less-known political parties clamouring for attention with diverse ideologies and ambitions, even if their chances of victory are very low.

Never before have so many parties contested for the Lok Sabha, the directly elected lower house of the Indian Parliament. The number of parties has been steadily rising, but those that managed to win seats have barely grown.

In addition to the 4,440 candidates fielded by different parties, there are 3,920 people contesting as independent candidates; all together, that makes 8,360 candidates in the fray, the largest in 28 years. Only 543 of them will be elected.

The rapid growth of Indian political parties from the late 1980s onward could be the result of several factors, said Rahul Verma, a fellow at the Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy Research, such as declining strength of the Congress party, fragmentation within the socialist blocs, and assertion of various political identities the country saw around that time.

In this respect, India is also an outlier among several major democracies.

Number of parties that contested the last election to the directly elected house of the respective national parliaments

Parties represent India’s diversity

Spread across thirty-six states and federal territories, Indians hailing from diverse ethnic origins speak hundreds of languages and thousands of dialects.

“Each group wants to be represented via its own leader, based on factors such as region, caste and sub-caste,” said Verma. “A large number of such formations mobilise voters on these issues.”

There are only three parties that contest elections across the country – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). But only the first two have so far managed to win seats from a diverse set of states. In the 2019 elections, the BSP polled only 4% votes compared with 56% by the other two parties put together.

Seats contested by select national parties in 2024

Still, India’s political landscape is full of smaller but politically strong regional parties that enjoy support in specific regions.

For example, with its 24 elected members, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, a party based in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, is the third largest in the Lok Sabha.

Seats contested by select regional parties in 2024

Some parties also represent India’s social and religious diversity, instead of regional factors, such as the BSP that campaigns for historically backward communities and has 10 members in the Lok Sabha.

However, Verma said most parties are very region-, district- or individual-centric, and so do not survive more than two or three electoral cycles.

Small parties, large influence

The small regional parties do matter in the larger picture though. At times, they end up being kingmakers when large parties fall short of a majority.

Most Indian governments in the past three decades have been led by a coalition of parties, even when a single party managed to cross the halfway mark.

Winner takes it all

India follows a first-past-the-post electoral system, in which voters cast a ballot for a single candidate and the one with the highest number wins. So, in practice, a candidate can win even with a minority of votes. Nearly half of the members ever elected to the Lok Sabha have won with a share of less than 50% of the vote in the constituencies they contested. Twenty-four won with less than a quarter.

Vote share of winning candidates

An extreme example is the constituency of Shahjahanpur in the politically key northern state of Uttar Pradesh – during elections in 1967 the leading candidate among the 12 who contested got just 16.7% votes.

Tax exemption and other perks

Founding political parties serves purposes beyond electoral gains, such as legal exemption from income tax, which could be another reason for their proliferation, said Jagdeep Chhokar, co-founder of election watchdog Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR).

Moreover, parties are “practically and effectively able to convert black money into white,” he said. “People can buy cars and houses for themselves in the name of the party.”

There are other intangible benefits, such as expecting favourable treatment by government officers based on the perception that politicians are influential individuals, he said.

“Parties also put up shadow candidates for various reasons,” he said. “The modus operandi seems to be that you put up a candidate and the candidate who really is interested in winning gives you money to withdraw the candidature,” Chhokar added.

More than a thousand candidates have withdrawn their nominations for this year’s election, though the reasons are not known.

Big parties hold ground

Despite the increasing number of parties contesting Indian elections, the bunch of parties winning seats has not expanded. Even among those that do win, the two major national parties dominate: in the past 10 elections, their combined vote share has been 52% on average. Independent candidates also do not achieve as much success as they once did.

Chhokar said the chances of winning an election as an independent or candidate from a small party are almost nil because of the financial resources the large parties can mobilise.

Indian elections are a costly affair. According to the parties’ declarations to the poll body, the BJP and the Congress spent about $255 million to contest the 2019 elections. More than $100 million was spent by 30 other major parties put together.

This is in huge contrast with the income declared by most of the smaller political parties in the preceding fiscal year. Of 228 parties whose income details were available, nine in ten declared an income of less than $1 million.

Annual income of political parties in 2018-19

Even with this diversity, national parties call the shots at the national as well as the regional level, Milan Vaishnav, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in a paper.

Most can’t last long, but some persist

Of more than 1,500 parties that have contested the past 15 Lok Sabha elections, a majority contested only once. Only 34 parties contested more than half of these elections.

Verma believes the easy registration process is one of the main reasons for the proliferation of parties. “Once registered, the election commission does not have the power to deregister a party, so it remains on the books forever,” he said.

Generally, only the serious contenders win, but a few have kept contesting anyway. This year, there are 18 parties in the fray that have contested more than five elections previously but never won any.

Some of them have contested and won state-level elections. But eight have failed even there.

Of these, the Hindustan Janata Party has fielded candidates in six seats this time. Its president, Babangir Gosawi, said it could not make an impact for lack of resources. “I am a retired military person, so I don’t let go of things I take up, whether we get success or not,” he said.

Another one, the Pyramid Party of India, is contesting 26 seats this time. Its website says the party was formed to transform people into “meditators, enlightened persons, vegetarians and peace-loving people”.

Logistical challenge

In a report in 2010, an Indian government committee on electoral reforms said a large number of candidates made the elections “cumbersome, expensive and unmanageable” and “increases expenditure on account of security, maintenance of law and order, and requires extra number of balloting units of voting machines,” along with other issues.

Managing elections can get more difficult in some cases, such as the constituency of Karur in Tamil Nadu, where 54 candidates are contesting this time, the highest tally of any constituency.

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