Some months before the 2009 general elections, I wrote an essay for a Delhi magazine outlining a wish-list of four things I hoped for to reinvigorate the democratic process in India.

First, I wanted “a Congress that is not wholly beholden to the dynasty”. Second, I wished for a Bharatiya Janata Party that distanced itself from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its idea of a Hindu rashtra. Third, I asked for “a united and reform-oriented Left” that would eschew violence altogether while also abandoning its faith in state control of the economy. Finally, I wished for the creation of a new party altogether, this “based on the aspirations of the expanding middle class”, a party that would “be open to all regardless of caste or religion, and promote policies that are likewise not oriented to a particular sect or ethnic group”.

Fourteen years and three general elections later, it is humbling to recall this wish-list and to see how far it still is from realisation. Though a non-Gandhi is at last the president of the Congress, the party is still firmly controlled by that family. Indeed, no sooner was Mallikarjun Kharge made Congress president that he visited the Bharat Jodo Yatra and said that Rahul Gandhi should be the next prime minister of India. The Yatra prompted the creation of “Rahul for PM” handles on social media; these became more active after the Congress’s victory in the assembly elections in Karnataka. Admittedly, there is the odd dissenting voice in party circles, which, occasionally, offers an alternative Congress candidate for prime minister – this being Rahul’s sister, Priyanka Gandhi.

Majoritarian mindset

As for the BJP, far from distancing itself from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Hindutva, it has come ever more firmly under their grip. The fact that none of its 300-odd MPs in the Lok Sabha is a Muslim speaks for its broader philosophy of treating minorities in general, and Muslims in particular, as not fully equal citizens of the land. The rewriting of textbooks and the framing of new educational curricula are other manifestations of the majoritarian mindset of the ruling party.

During the first BJP-led National Democratic Alliance regime, which ran from 1998 to 2004, the government’s policies and programmes were not immune from Hindutva influence. However, these influences were relatively muted, whereas since the second NDA came to power at the Centre in 2014, they have become ever more explicit. Moreover, even as it has been more Hindutva-ised, the BJP has become increasingly captive to a personality cult. In the past, the party had explicitly set itself against “vyakti puja”, the worship of an individual, in part to distinguish itself from the Congress of Indira Gandhi. However, that scruple has now been abandoned, and MPs and cabinet ministers compete feverishly with one another in lavishing ever more sycophantic praise on the prime minister, Narendra Modi.

This fusion of religious majoritarianism and the cult of personality was strikingly manifest in the substance, as well as symbolism, of the ceremonies that marked the inauguration of the new Parliament building. While the president and vice-president were absent, it was also no accident that in the choreographing of the ceremonies the cabinet ministers were scarcely visible either. The object was to showcase one man alone, with suitably pliant priests providing a Hindutva scaffolding to the occasion. His party members and the extended sangh parivar have elevated the prime minister to the status of a Hindu emperor.

Coming next to the Left, this element in the Indian polity has also not reformed itself in the manner in which this writer had hoped. Instead of coming overground and making their peace with multi-party democracy, the Naxalites continue to commit acts of indiscriminate violence in districts where they command some influence. As for the parliamentary Left, in the one state where it remains in power, Kerala, it hasn’t markedly changed its approach to governance. High human development indices should be a magnet for private investment from outside; here, however, it isn’t, because the Communist Party of India (Marxist) yet avows a command-and-control approach to the economy.

The last item on my wish-list of 15 years ago was the creation of an altogether new party. This wish has been fulfilled, in theory, by the arrival on the Indian political stage of the Aam Aadmi Party, founded in 2012. In practice, however, the Aam Aadmi Party has not provided the radical break with the past its supporters might have wished for. While it does have a decent record in providing public education and health in Delhi, on the other, and negative, side of the balance sheet lie the creation of a cult around Arvind Kejriwal and the party’s refusal to stand up for victimised minorities.

Fifteen years ago, I had outlined a charter for a four-fold remaking of the Indian party system. In this period, the country has witnessed three further general elections. If my charter of 2009 remains almost wholly unrealised, then one must conclude that its proponent was naïve, even utopian. I have learned enough by now not to ask – or hope – for the Congress to abandon the Gandhis, for the BJP to delink itself from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, for the Indian Left to turn its back on Mao and Lenin, for the Aam Aadmi Party to become some sort of desi clone of the forward-looking, environmentally responsible, and pro-feminist Green Party of Germany.

The benefits of collaboration

A fresh general election is less than a year away. Let me, in anticipation of that major event, offer a fresh wish-list, this altogether more modest than the last one. My hope now is that no single party should get a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha; indeed, that the largest single party should fall substantially short of a majority. For while our current prime minister is authoritarian by instinct, this unsalutary aspect of his personality has been given ballast by the two successive majorities his party has won in general elections. Before Modi, Indira Gandhi was emboldened in her authoritarian tendencies by the large majority her party won in the elections of 1971. Between Modi and Indira, the electorate had in its wisdom – or lack thereof – given the Congress Party under Rajiv Gandhi more than 400 seats in the 1984 elections, with unfortunate consequences for politics and governance.

India is too large and diverse a country to be run in any way other than collaboration and consultation. However, a large majority in Parliament encourages arrogance and hubris in the ruling party. A prime minister who commands such a majority tends to ride roughshod over his cabinet colleagues, disrespect the Opposition, tame the press, undermine the autonomy of institutions, and – not least – disregard the rights and interests of the states, particularly if they are ruled by a party other than the one headed by the prime minister.

Future historians will most likely record that on the whole, PV Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh were better prime ministers than Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, and Narendra Modi. This is not necessarily because the first trio were wiser or more able than the second. Rather, the circumstances in which Rao, Vajpayee and Singh found themselves in office compelled them to accord more autonomy to their cabinet ministers, to listen to their coalition partners (themselves representing diverse groups, regions, and interests), to consult more actively with the Opposition, to not inhibit an independent press, to not put pressure on the judiciary, to not interfere unduly with the autonomy of public institutions, and to respect the rights and interests of the states. When these coalition governments were in office, economic growth, federalism, minority rights, and independent institutions all benefited from the absence of a dominant party with an overbearing prime minister.

Were Narendra Modi and the BJP to get a third successive majority in the general elections of 2024, this shall most likely be to the detriment of democracy, pluralism and federalism in India. The Opposition shall be further disregarded, the elements of a free press further suppressed, minorities made to feel more insecure, the states asked to bow even more abjectly before the Centre. Such an eventuality will probably be to the detriment of the economy too. (No prime minister of a coalition government would have been so arrogant as to impose a disastrous experiment such as demonetisation.)

This, then, is my single, modest, wish for next year’s general elections; that no party should get more than 250 seats, ideally, no more than 200 in the 543-seat house. If that happens, India will be governed, if not more wisely, then certainly less arrogantly, without a single party, still less a single individual, presuming to speak for us all.

This article first appeared on The Telegraph.

The updated edition of Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi is now in stores. His email address is