The search for a viable national alternative to the Congress goes back more than fifty years, to the first general elections of 1952. Just before that election, two former cabinet colleagues of Jawaharlal Nehru established political parties to challenge the Congress. One was Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, who begat the Jana Sangh, the other, B. R. Ambedkar, who revived the Scheduled Castes Federation (later named the Republican Party). Neither of these two doctors was, of course, ever members of the Congress itself. However, two more political parties were started at the same time by lifelong Congressmen who felt compelled to leave their parent organization. One was the Kisan Mazdoor Praja Parishad, whose prime mover was Acharya Kripalani; the other the Socialist Party, whose leaders included such gifted men as Ram Manohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan.

Shortly before the 1952 elections, these four challengers were joined by a fifth: the Communist Party of India, which came overground at the behest of Moscow, seeking to exchange the bullet for the ballot. These five parties had several things in common. First, all were led by politicians of competence and calibre. Second, none had a ghost of a chance of winning an overall majority in the 1952 elections. Third, all of them knew this. Fourth, all hoped that in the course of time the Congress would be able to meet popular expectations, and that their party would emerge as the natural alternative to it — perhaps in time for the third general elections in 1962 or, if disenchantment proceeded faster than anticipated, in 1957 itself.

Despite their ideological differences, then, the communists, the Jana Sanghis, the Socialists and the Republicans all believed that Indian democracy would, in course of time, evolve around two poles: one represented by the Congress, the other, hopefully, by themselves. In this they were influenced by the history of Western democracies such as the United States of America and the United Kingdom, both marked by a more-or-less stable two-party system. Why should India not follow that path too?

In the event, these putative “national” alternatives all performed miserably in the polls of 1952. The Congress was hegemonic, which was not to the liking of one Congressman, C. Rajagopalachari. In October 1956, “Rajaji” made public his belief that there should be an opposition group within the Congress, without which — so he feared — the party “would simply degenerate into a hunting ground for every kind of ambition and self-seeking”.

The proposal was rejected; so the veteran turned to promoting an opposition outside the Congress instead. As he argued in an essay of May 1958, a healthy democracy required “an Opposition that thinks differently and does not just want more of the same, a group of vigorously thinking citizens which aims at the general welfare, and not one that in order to get more votes from the so-called have-nots, offers more to them than the party in power has given, an Opposition that appeals to reason…”. Such an opposition, even if it did not succeed in ousting the ruling party, might yet challenge and humanize it.

A democracy run by a single party automatically becomes a tyranny; such was Rajaji's rationale for starting Swatantra.
In the Cold War, Rajaji tilted slightly towards the US — he was appalled by the “godlessness” of Communism as much as by its denial of liberty — while among his friends and advisers were some fervent free-marketeers. These ideas informed the new political party started by Rajaji in June 1959. Named the Swatantra Party, this focused its criticisms on the “personality cult” around the prime minister, and on the economic policies of the ruling Congress. Its founding statement asked for a “proper decentralized distribution of industry” through the nurturing of “competitive enterprise”; and, in agriculture, for the encouragement of the “self-employed peasant proprietor who stands for initiative and freedom”. It rejected the “techniques of so-called socialism” and the “bringing into being of ‘Statism”’.

A democracy run by a single party automatically becomes a tyranny; such was Rajaji’s rationale for starting Swatantra. For “the Congress Party has so far run without a true Opposition. It has run with accelerators and no brakes”. This party, promoted by an old man, quickly gathered momentum. Those who joined up included captains of industry, naturally, but also peasant-leaders worried by Congress threats to promote “co-operative farming”. Although conventionally described as “Conservative”, the party was in fact a curious amalgam of Westernized free-market liberals, ex- maharajahs, and agrarian leaders, all of whom had their own reasons for seeking an alternative to the Congress.

Swatantra had a reasonably coherent economic philosophy, as well as some capable leaders — notably Minoo Masani and N. G. Ranga. The party did quite well in the 1962 Lok Sabha elections (winning 18 seats) and even better in 1967 (when it won as many as 44). Masani himself was an uncommonly eloquent leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha. But then, in the mid-term poll of January 1971, the party won a mere 8 seats, vanquished by an “Indira wave”, which had re-positioned the Congress as a party of the poor and all else — Swatantra included — as merely masks for the vested interests of the rich.

India now seemed set to return to one-party dominance. But in June 1975, Mrs Gandhi imposed the Emergency and then in January 1977 revoked it. Opposing the Congress now were the newly formed Janata Party, composed of characters drawn liberally, and illiberally, from all the alternatives of the past — the Jana Sangh, the Socialists, the Swatantra. When Janata was voted to power, some hopeful commentators saw this as the harbinger, at last, of a genuine two-party system in India. But these hopes were naïve, to say the least. For the party was formed on a one-point platform, and this was personal rather than ideological — namely, the removal of Indira Gandhi from power. Soon the Socialists fought with the Swatantra-ites, and both battled with the Jana Sanghis. In less than two years of its winning a general election, the Janata Party had broken up into its constituent parts.

The Congress easily won the 1980 elections and then those of 1984, more easily still. Halfway through his term as prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi placated the reactionary Muslim clergy with regard to the Shah Bano affair and then, to make amends, assuaged the reactionary Hindus by opening the locks of the Babri Masjid. With these two acts he gave birth to a new, countrywide challenge to his dominant party. The Jana Sangh, reborn now as the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, railed, to surprising effect, against the “appeasement of minorities” and the “insult to Hindu pride”. It steadily increased its vote-share as well as its number of seats. In 1996, it came to power at the head of a coalition which lasted a mere 13 days. It came back, however, in 1998 and again in 1999, after which the BJP headed a coalition government which lasted a full term in office.

Now, again, commentators saw the maturing of a two-party system in India. Of course, with the rise of regional parties, neither the Congress nor the BJP could command an overall majority in parliament. Still, with 193 seats to its account after the 1999 elections, the BJP was driving the National Democratic Alliance wagon. In the first weeks of 2004, some ideologues within the ruling party were speaking hopefully of getting a majority in the impending general elections. Meanwhile, the Congress looked down-and-out; as its own leaders privately conceded.

In the event, 2004 ended with a Congress coalition in power; and the BJP seemingly in (terminal?) decline. However, with a mere 145 seats, the Congress is even less in command of its coalition than the BJP once was. Now, at last, it is perhaps time to stop searching for a Holy Grail that most likely never did exist. For India is much larger than the UK; and far more culturally diverse than the US. Its population is too large, and too unwieldy, to be represented by two parties alone, or even, as it now seems, by two coalitions each dominated by a single party.