Politics in India: Historical Development

I. Introduction

A. India is one of the most ancient civilizations in the world: history dates back to the 3rd millennium BC

B. In this lecture, I emphasize four especially important factors which have shaped current politics in India:

(1) British Colonial period (1757-1947)

(2) Independence/Nehru era (1947-1964)

(3) Indira Ghandi era (1966-1984)

(4) BJP back to Congress Party era (1990s-2007)

(5) Current Era (2007-Present)

II. British Colonial Period (1757-1947)

A. An Indian civilization began to develop as early as 1500BC, as light skinned Aryans from the North developed what became Sanskrit language, the Hindu religion and the caste system

B. The entire Indian subcontinent was united under the rule of Ashoka in about the 3rd century AD and Indian civilization—literature, language, culture, science etc—flourished until about 1000AD

C. Beginning in about the 10th century Persian-based Muslim armies made serious inroads into India and by the 1500s gained control of much of India. However, by the early 1700s the power of the Mughal dynasty faded—although it had always faced serious Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh internal opposition

D. Portuguese, French and British trading companies began making inroads into India in the late 1400s but it was the British which eventually emerged as the largest threat to Mughal rule

1. 1st stage in the British takeover was NOT carried out by the govt but rather by the British East India Company, so the motivation really wasn’t conquest but PROFITS


BEIC        BEIH

2.  It was a large trading company that had strong backing for its ventures from the British crown

3. It allowed local rulers to remain in power if they helped the companies commercial returns—policy was to find a class of leaders loyal to British who could themselves profit from the new commercial arrangements established by the British EIC

4. “Divide and Rule” was the policy—played one Indian prince against another, formed alliances with some, subdued others, and managed to enhance its control over Indian politics in the process
5. Like other colonies, India contributed to Britain’s industrial revolution b/c it was a source of cheap raw materials and provided an outlet for both British manufactured products and investment

6. The British crown formally took India as a colony in 1857, after putting down a major revolt of Indian princes (concerned about growing British power)—called the “Mutiny of 1857”

E. British Crown set up a system that ruled over India for about 90 years: from about 1857 to 1947. British govt entered into a series of alliances w/India’s traditional ruling groups and eventually helped form a modern central govt based on 3 main varieties of ruling arrangements

1. Independent Rule in Princely States: set up about 500 states, covering 2/3 of the continent ruled by traditional Indian princes who were allowed a relatively free hand w/n their realms

2. Indirect Rule: in other parts of India—Bengal area (currently west Bengal and Bangladesh) for example—British set up a system of Indirect rule in which the British crown transformed traditional Indian economic elites into legal landlords in exchange for periodic payments to the colonial administration

3. Direct Rule: In other parts of India--Bombay and Madras for example—Britain set up a system of direct rule, whereby British civil servants were directly responsible for collecting taxes and for adjudicating law and order

4. Reality: British rule seldom reached deeply into rural areas which were organized into self-sufficient villages and organized socially into religiously sanctioned caste groups, with some landowning castes dominating the other castes lower in the ritual hierarchy and occupational and income scales

5. In more urban areas however British rule was achieved thru the creation of a central govt that imposed control over the various territories and indigenous authority structures…lorded over India thru creation of an all-India civil service, police force and army, originally populated only by British nationals---and later educated Indians incorporated into these services

6. When India emerged from colonial rule in 1947, the new Indian state inherited these institutions and continued to organize India along the principles established by the British in the mid-1800s, so fair to suggest that the roots of the modern Indian state can be traced directly to its colonial origins


III. Nationalist Movement (1885-1947)

A. Indian nationalist movement emerged in 1885, founded by the Indian National Congress (INC) with its central goal being to right the racial, cultural, and political wrongs of colonial rule

B. Originally a collection of urban elites who periodically met and sent petitions to India’s British rulers—wanted equality and greater Indian involvement in political offices

C. British largely ignored these requests

D. Man responsible for transforming the INC from a narrow, elitist club to a mass nationalist movement was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and called Mahatma (“great soul”) by his followers.


gandhi    the G man

1. Gamdhi was born in 1869 in West India and studied law in London for two years

2. He worked in Durban South Africa as a lawyer and anti-apartheid activist for 21 years before returning to India—there he developed the famous strategy of “non-violent” mass, peaceful resistance to apartheid and later to British colonial rule

3. Returned to India in 1915 and became leader of the INC in the 1920s: Gandhi successfully mobilized the Indian middle-classes, as well as a segment of the Indian peasantry into an anti-British movement that came to demand full sovereignty for India

4. Ghandi dominated the nationalist movement for over two decades but was assassinated in January 1948, five months after India achieved its goal of self-rule—a Muslim fanatic killed him b/c Gandhi refused to give in to Muslim demands of separate political rights and a separate state
5. NOTE: eventual division of India and Pakistan and subsequent Muslim-Hindu hostilities w/n India originated in the discovery of different languages and gods even given the common goal of kicking the Brits out

6. Independence: in 1920s-30s INC leaders like Gandhi and Nehru were increasingly successful in mobilizing Indians in an anti-British nationalist movement for Independence

7. More successful the movement became, the more Britain had to repress the movement or make concessions and they did a little of both

8. However, WWII eventually consumed most of Britain’s energies so that the govt couldn’t simultaneously deal w/a major European war and insurgent colonies

9. In order to gain support for its war efforts, the Brits promised India greater independence after the war and in August 1947, India became a sovereign state as the weakened Brits withdrew from the continent

10. The subcontinent was further divided into the Muslim state of Pakistan and the secular, largely Hindu state of India—the division was a turbulent, bloody period as millions of Muslims rushed from India to Pakistan and millions of Hindus fled the other way--b/n 500,000-1M died in the violence

IV. The Nehru Era (1947-1964)

A. The logical 1st leader of the new India was Gandhi but he was assassinated by a Muslim fanatic five months after independence

B. Jawaharlal Nehru, a Western educated leader in the INC movement became Prime Minister as head of the Congress Party of the new India, a position he maintained until his death in 1964


nehru          gman and nehru

C. During his rule, Nehru established India as a socialist, democratic, and secular state

D. On the international front, he helped found the non-aligned movement, a forum for expressing the interests and aspirations of developing countries that did NOT want to align with either the US or the USSR during the Cold War

E. Attempted to set India on a rapid road to industrialization by establishing heavy industry and also committed the Indian govt to redistributing wealth thru land reform

F. With India very divided by the spoken languages (Hindi speakers concentrated in north-central India and non-Hindi speakers concentrated in the south and east), Nehru organzied India into 14 linguistically defined states (now 23 major states w/n India)

G. Nehru was able to move India in a fully democratic direction (full adult suffrage), charted a more independent foreign policy path (“non-aligned movement”), and moved India into the top 10 of industrial countries.
H. However, despite Nehru’s pro-poor, socialist rhetoric, India remained one of the poorest, most illiterate countries on the planet

V. The Indira Gandhi Era (1966-1984)

A. Indira Gandhi became PM shortly after the death of her father, Nehru, and dominated the Indian political scene until her assassination in 1984—she was selected by the Congress Party as leader b/c

(1) She was Nehru’s daughter and thus well respected and

(2) Perceived by Congress Party leaders as a weak woman who could be manipulated…they were right about the former but wrong about the latter


indira     g and I     indira-G

B. She was PM from 1966-1977 and again from 1980-1984…dominated the Indian pol scene for those years

C. Her legacies:

(1) She was both a populist and an Indian nationalist: used populist rhetoric to win immense popularity amongst the poor—

(2) In 1971, more land was given to the peasntry, coal mines were nationalized, and harsh new taxes were imposed on the rural and industrial elite. She also called for the “removal of poverty” and the “attainment of self-reliance”; she also led the move to end official discrimination against the “untouchable” caste and so on

(3) For all of her populist rhetoric though India’s poor really didn’t gain: wasn’t able to achieve significant land reform (large landholders refused to redistribute any land) and failed to generate employment, provide welfare, or improve access to education and health care for the really poor

(4) To bolster her popularity, she also deliberately reignited Indian nationalism—sent troops into East Pakistan (separated by 1000 miles) after it demanded independence, and b/c the US sided w/Pakistan in the conflict, Gandhi mobilized Indian nationalist sentiments against the US and Pakistan (EP eventually became Bangladesh)

(5) During Indira Gandhi’s reign, politics in India definitely became more and more turbulent and probably more corrupt—as her popularity soared, so did opposition to her rule. Opponents didn’t like her populist rhetoric, calls for land redistribution, her Indian nationalism, and her tendency toward top-down rule (she cut local elites out of the loop by appointing her own followers into positions that controlled what these local elected officials were doing)

(6) She was eventually assassinated by one of her Sikh bodyguards in 1984—period when she ordered Indian security forces to attack Sikh militants hiding inside a holy shrine (Golden Temple in the city of Amritsar) resulted in the deaths of hubdreds of Sikh militants and setting off a wave of violence…this caused a general outrage w/n the Sikh population and this led to her assassination

VI. India Since Indira Gandhi (1984-present)

A. Since Ghandi’s death in 1984, her son Rajiv Gandhi became PM, and his reign lasted from 1984-1989.


        rajiv             rajiv and nehru

B. He was a young, handsome, rich, and Western educated son of Indira Gandhi,  grandson of Nehru, and nephew of Mahatma Gandhi—w/those blood lines and credentials, he couldn’t lose

C. He brought in similarly young, pro-Western, well educated advisers—NOT tied to socialist principles of previous generations and so he introduced the 1st market-oriented reforms, although they didn’t go very far

D. His term came to an end in 1989 and he didn’t seek re-election but campaigned for PM again in 1991. During the campaign, poised to win, Gandhi was assassinated by Tamil extremists

E. Since Gandhi’s death, the Congress Party lost control of Parliament and Indian politics (for several years...but they are back in power now)

F. Politics in India is currently characterized by governments with precarious coalitions, a wounded Congress Party, weakened political institutions, and considerable political activism along ethnic lines—right now there seems to be no charismatic leaders on the horizon such as Nehru or Indira Gandhi capable of uniting the country across the regional, religious, and ethnic lines that have fragmented India