Dominant Parties and the Origins of India’s Weakly Institutionalized Party System
Why are party systems well-institutionalized in some settings, and chronically weak in others? I argue that unstable party systems are more likely to arise in regions where nationally dominant parties monopolize political competition at the onset of mass-franchise democracy. Dominant parties crowd out political opposition. Hence the eventual breakdown of a dominant party entails the severing of party-voter linkages locally. In the resulting vacuum, politicians face uncertainty about the electoral prospects of newly emergent parties. This leads to a collective action dilemma whereby candidates defect from expanding parties and sort instead into smaller, fragmentary ones. Consequently, stable party systems fail to take hold. Subnational evidence from India buttresses the theoretical argument. The success of the once-dominant Congress Party during the country’s inaugural elections (1951–2) robustly predicts greater electoral volatility in the decades following the decline of one-party dominance in the 1970s. Differential patterns of nationalist mobilization during the colonial period provide additional support for the paper’s claims. Overall, the findings imply a striking paradox: dominant parties that help “bind the nation together” during democracy’s initial stages sow the seeds of long-run political instability.
Gareth Nellis (PhD, Yale University) is the Evidence in Governance and Politics postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. His research focuses on political parties, in particular the origins and persistence of weakly institutionalized party systems, and the extent to which parties matter for key development outcomes. A second strand of work addresses the drivers of discrimination against internal migrants in fast-urbanizing settings.