The establishment of Indian National Congress in 1885 in India is considered as the beginning of the formation of parties. The Indian National Congress which led national movement was an umbrella organisation representing interests of all sections of society. The formative phase of the Indian National Congress was dominated by the Moderates like Dada Bhai Naoroji, Surendra Nath Banerjee, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and others as well as the Extremists like ‘Lal-Bal-Pal’ - referring to Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal.

After the First World War, the Indian National Congress steered the path of India’s independence under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. There also emerged some other political parties during this period like the Muslim League, the Communist Party of India, the Hindu Mahasabha, etc.

After independence in 1947, the Indian National Congress transferred itself into a political party in the sense of contesting elections and forming government. It remained a dominant political party up to 1967, as it continued to win elections held in 1952, 1957, 1962 and 1967 at the Centre as well as in almost all the States. This period is known as ‘one party dominant system’ in view of the Congress winning majorities whereas the large number of other political parties contesting elections winning only few seats.

Since 1967 the party system in India has been in constant flux. In 1971 although the Congress won a majority in the Lok Sabha, in many states various other political parties formed governments mostly in coalitions. After 1977, it appeared that India had moved towards a ‘two party system’ - the two parties being the Indian National Congress and the Janata Party. But it was only for a very short period.

The Janata Party which was in fact a coalition of various factions like the Congress O, the Jana Sangh, the Socialists, the Bharatiya Lok Dal, and the Congress for Democracy split into different factions. The Janata split once again gave advantage to the Congress which returned to power at the Centre in 1980 and remained there until 1989. However, the Congress has not been able to regain its dominant position ever since 1989.

Indian party system witnesses a coalition system of government from 1989 onwards. Since 1999 two broad coalitions have come up - one, known as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the second, known as the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), led by the Congress Party. At present in India, there is a multi-party system as very large number of parties participate in political process.

There are a number of political parties at the national as well as the state levels. Every political party pronounces its policies and programmes as commitment to the electorate. These are normally included in a document known as Manifesto.

1. Indian National Congress

Founded in Bombay in 1885, the Indian National Congress (now the Congress) played a leading role in India’s freedom struggle. After independence the Congress emerged as the leading party of governance and ruled at the Centre and in almost all the States till 1967. The first two decades in India’s political history were dominated by the Congress and the period came to be described as the ‘Congress System’.

The dominance of the Congress decreased gradually. Now it depended on coalition of political parties to come to power in the Centre. The Congress is committed to democracy, secularism, and socialism. It is centrist political party. While it champions the policy of liberalisation, privatisation, globalisation called “LPG” on the one hand; it also works for the welfare of the weaker sections of society. It advocates both agrarian based Indian economy and industrialisation.

It seeks to strengthen grassroots institutions at the local level and claims to play a vital role in international institutions, especially in the United Nations.

2. Bharatiya Janata Party

Founded in 1980 after distancing itself from the then Janata Party, the Bharatiya Janata Party is the new incarnation of its erstwhile formation, Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS). BJP is an important political party both at the Centre as well as in the States. The BJP stands for (a) nationalism and national integration, (b) democracy, (c) positive secularism, (d) Gandhian socialism, and (e) value-based politics. Tilted towards the right in the initial stages, the BJP is as centrist as is the Congress now. 

3. Communist Parties

The major communist parties in India are the Communist Party of India (CPI), founded in 1925 and the Communist Party of India, Marxist (CPI M) which came into being after the split in the Communist Party of India in 1964. Over the years, the CPI(M) became relatively more powerful than the CPI. The CPI (M) and the CPI had been in power in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura.

The Communist Parties are workers’ and peasants’ parties. Based on the ideology of Marxism and Leninism, the Communist Parties stand for socialism, socialist ownership of industries, agrarian reforms, rural upliftment and a self-reliant economy. They are opposed to capitalism, imperialism and globalisation.

4. The Bahujan Samaj Party

Founded in 1984 by Kanshi Ram, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) claims to be the party of the deprived sections of the Indian society, especially the poor, the landless, the unemployed and the Dalits who constitute the majority in the Indian population. It draws inspiration from the teachings of Sahu Maharaj, Jyotiba Phule, Ramaswami Naicker and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. The BSP works on the principle of ‘Sarvajan Hitay, Sarvajan Sukhay!’ (Welfare and Happiness for All).

5. Nationalist Congress Party

The Nationalist Congress Party is a breakaway group of the Indian National Congress. The trio who formed the party in 1999 included Sharad Pawar, P A Sangma and Tariq Anwar. The party’s policies are more or less same as that of the Congress. It has major support base in Maharashtra.

6. The Rashtriya Janata Dal

The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) is another party which came into existence after disintegration of the Janata Dal in 1997. The party was formed by Lalu Prasad Yadav. The party stands for socialist programmes and social justice for the backward castes and minorities.

Regional Political Parties

Regional political parties have emerged to fulfil regional aspirations. They became quite popular in their respective States that they have even begun dominating state politics and capturing power in their respective States. Their enhanced political positions helped the national political parties form coalition governments at the Centre.

It is because of the regional political parties that party-system has been federalised. The Centre has begun to address their problems and respond their aspirations through accommodation. The evolving nature of party system has strengthened the cooperative trends of our federal system.

Registered (unrecognised) Parties

A large number of political parties are registered at the Election Commission, without having been recognised as National or State parties.