India’s Electoral Journey

India has experienced shifts in governance, from the longstanding rule of the Congress party to the formation of coalition governments, and the towering rise of Narendra Modi. Each electoral term mirrors the changing ethos and ambitions of the nation
By Geeta Singh
  • The third Lok Sabha introduced indelible ink in voting, pioneering a practice now standard in elections
  • The Janata Party ended Congress’s 30-year rule. Morarji Desai became PM after the Emergency era
  • The Seventh Lok Sabha was notable for electing 49 Muslim members, the highest number ever in the history of India’s parliamentary elections
  • In 1984, Congress under Rajiv Gandhi secured a historic political mandate, marking the party’s best-ever performance on record

INDIA gears up for the 2024 general elections, scheduled from April 19 to June 1, with results due on June 4. An estimated 970 million voters are set to participate, marking it as the largest democratic exercise globally. The outcome will shape the 18th Lok Sabha, reflecting India’s evolving aspirations and challenges.

The nation’s political landscape has transformed since independence, transitioning from Congress dominance to coalition governments, and recently, to the BJP’s significant rise. Reflecting its commitment to democracy, India has ensured universal adult suffrage, with the voting age lowered to 18 in 1989 to widen democratic participation.

Let’s embark on a retrospective journey, exploring the remarkable and tumultuous events of each Lok Sabha since 1952: the individuals, the political dynamics, and the policies that have shaped India’s path over the decades.

FORMATION OF THE FIRST LOK SABHA (1952 – 1957)

The formation of the first Lok Sabha was shaped by several factors: the impact of the partition, the significant contribution of the Congress party to the independence movement, the widespread influence of Jawaharlal Nehru, and the urgent requirement for both democratic and economic stability.

India’s journey as a democratic nation began with the historic first General Elections, held from October 25, 1951, to February 21, 1952. Spanning 68 voting phases, a staggering 173 million voters from 26 states participated in this democratic exercise to fill 489 parliamentary seats.

The Indian National Congress (INC) emerged as the dominant force, securing a landslide victory with 364 seats and claiming 45% of the total votes. The Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Socialist Party also made their presence felt with 16 and 12 seats, respectively. In contrast, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh could muster only 3 seats. The outcome of the elections saw Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru becoming the first elected Prime Minister of India. However, it was a disappointing result for Dr B R Ambedkar’s Scheduled Caste Federation (SCF), which won only two of the 35 seats it contested, with Ambedkar himself facing defeat.

The Lok Sabha’s inaugural session was marked by the appointment of Ganesh Vasudev Mavalankar as its first Speaker.  The first Lok Sabha set a record with 677 meetings during its five-year tenure from April 1952 to April 1957, the most in Indian parliamentary history. 

2ND LOK SABHA (1957 – 1962) : CONGRESS DOMINANCE

During the 2nd Lok Sabha Congress party fortified its dominance in the nascent years, capitalising on the lack of a formidable opposition and the widespread appeal of Jawaharlal Nehru’s socialist policies.

In the 1957 elections, the Congress party, led by Nehru, comfortably secured a second consecutive term, winning 371 out of 494 seats in the Lok Sabha. M Ananthasayanam Iyengar was appointed as the Speaker, nominated by Nehru himself. Out of 45 women who contested, 22 were elected, with the largest representation from Madhya Pradesh.

Following the Congress, the Communist Party of India secured 27 seats, and the Praja Socialist Party obtained 19. This Lok Sabha session was notably the first to convene after the States Reorganisation Act of 1956 came into effect. 

3RD LOK SABHA ( 1962 – 1967)  TWO WARS & THREE PRIME MINISTERS

In the third Lok Sabha in 1962, Nehru’s Congress won big again, the third time, but was beset with early signs of internal dissent. Regional parties gained national popularity, India went to war with China and Pakistan, and the non-alignment stance guided India’s foreign policy.  Winning a substantial majority for the third consecutive time, Congress secured 361 seats out of 494. 

Jawaharlal Nehru was re-elected as Prime Minister, marking his third term and extending his tenure to the longest continuous period in Indian history, spanning nearly 16 years, from independence until his death on May 27, 1964. Following Nehru’s passing, Gulzarilal Nanda assumed the role of acting Prime Minister twice, first from May 27 to June 9, 1964, and then from January 11 to January 24, 1966. Lal Bahadur Shastri served as the second Prime Minister of the country from June 9, 1964, to January 11, 1966, until his demise, and Indira Gandhi was the PM for the remaining Lok Sabha session.

The formation of the first Lok Sabha was shaped by several factors: the impact of the partition, the significant contribution of the Congress party to the independence movement, the widespread influence of Jawaharlal Nehru, and the urgent requirement for both democratic and economic stability

 Lal Bahadur Shastri’s tenure as Prime Minister, although brief, was marked by significant events such as the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965 and the popularisation of the slogan ‘Jai Jawan Jai Kisan’ (Hail the Soldier, Hail the Farmer), which underscored the importance of soldiers and farmers in the context of national security and development.

This Lok Sabha had no official Leader of the Opposition, with Sardar Hukam Singh serving as the Speaker. Third Lok Sabha was the first to have Parliamentary Constituencies reserved for Scheduled Caste categories. The number of elected female candidates increased from 22 to 31, with the majority hailing from Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh. The emergence of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu as a new opposition party. 

The electoral process itself was notable for two reasons: it was completed in less than a week, from February 19 to February 25, and it marked the first use of indelible ink in the voting process, setting a precedent for future elections.

4TH LOK SABHA (1967 – 1970)  INDIRA GANDHI ERA BEGINS

Indira Gandhi, India’s first and only female Prime Minister, assumed office, initiating measures to ease economic turmoil. The internal discord within the Congress party threatened its unity, paving the way for the rise of coalition governments. During the tenure of the fourth Lok Sabha from 1967 to 1970, the Congress, under Indira’s Leadership, won 283 of the 520 seats, with its vote share dipping to around 41%. The party’s internal conflicts culminated in a split in November 1969, when Indira Gandhi was expelled from the party for indiscipline by Congress party president, S Nijalingappa. Indira  Gandhi then launched her own faction of the INC known as Congress (R), while the original party came to be known as Indian National Congress (O). Amidst growing inflation and economic distress, Gandhi’s administration focused on the Green Revolution to combat food scarcity and nationalised major commercial banks. 

5TH LOK SABHA (1971 – 1977) THE EMERGENCY YEARS

The Indira Gandhi-led Congress ‘swept back to power’ with 352 seats, securing near absolute control of the government. Indira’s ‘Garibi Hatao’ slogan and her role in the Bangladesh war bolstered her popularity among the masses, yet concerns mounted over her authoritarian tendencies within the party. India witnessed one of its darkest post-independence periods with the declaration of Emergency and the suspension of civil liberties.

The fifth session of the Lok Sabha epitomised the turbulence of the Seventies. It dissolved in March 1977. This election marked the debut of Maharashtra’s Shiv Sena in the Lok Sabha polls. Notably, the then-President of India, VV Giri, abstained from voting in the election. Similarly, the Governors of Haryana and Punjab refrained from participating to maintain a sense of neutrality as heads of state. According to a study, the Constitution was amended 19 times during this period.

6TH LOK SABHA (1977 – 1980) ‘JANATA’ WAVE

The Janata Party’s emergence disrupted the Congress’s unbroken 30-year rule since Independence. Morarji Desai, and later Charan Singh served as Prime Minister of an India emerging from the aftermath of the Emergency. Despite having been voted into power twice before, Indira Gandhi was ‘denied even a seat in the Lok Sabha.’ Polling was conducted across 25 States and six Union Territories, comprising 542 constituencies, between March 16 and 20. Opposition parties formed an unlikely coalition, including the Jan Sangh, Congress (O), Bharatiya Lok Dal, Socialist Party of PSP and SSP, Swatantra Party, and the newly formed Congress for Democracy — under the leadership of Jaya Prakash Narayan. JP, who left Congress in 1948 and formed the Praja Socialist Party in 1952, emerged as a fierce critic of Indira Gandhi during this election. The elections witnessed a stunning reversal in Congress’s fortunes, marking the first General Election where the Indian National Congress failed to secure the majority of votes. From 350 seats, it now held only 154. 

With the Janata Party forming the government, Congress moved to the opposition benches,but the Janata Party eventually succumbed to internal conflicts. The Lower House was dissolved on August 22, 1979, and early elections were called in 1980.

During the Janata Party wave the elections witnessed a stunning reversal in Congress’s fortunes, marking the first General Election where Congress failed to secure the majority of votes. From 350 seats, it now held only 154

7TH LOK SABHA (1980-1984)  CONGRESS MAKES A COMEBACK

The 7th Lok Sabha marked the resurgence of the Congress party, with Indira Gandhi reclaiming the Prime Minister’s seat after the short-lived Janata Party governance. The session, which lasted from January 1980 to December 1984, was a time of new trials for the nation, including rising unemployment, widespread labour unrest, and escalating militancy in Punjab. 

The elections, conducted briskly over four days in January 1980, spanned 25 states and six union territories, covering 542 constituencies. She also banked on the Muslim vote. The tenure saw economic and communal chasms. ‘Mrs Gandhi inherited an economy that is “very sick” — a 20% inflation rate and collapse of industrial growth, resulting in “formidable unemployment” and labour unrest’, The Hindu reported. This Lok Sabha was notable for electing 49 Muslim members, the highest number ever in the history of India’s parliamentary elections.

8TH LOK SABHA ( 1984 – 1989) EMERGENCE OF NEW POLITICAL FORCES

No one could have predicted the tumultuous journey of the eighth Lok Sabha. The Congress secured a ‘historic political mandate,’ with Rajiv Gandhi riding an electoral wave that resulted in the party’s best-ever performance in independent India’s history. The period was marred by the tragic assassination of Indira Gandhi, which ignited a wave of anti-Sikh sentiment and widespread communal unrest, while also highlighting the fragility of political coalitions. Additionally, the political landscape witnessed the debut of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), led by NT Rama Rao, making waves of their own.

The elections were conducted for 549 constituencies across 24 States and six Union Territories and Congress clinched a record 414 seats, followed by the TDP (30) and CPM (22 seats). Rajiv Gandhi, who became India’s youngest Prime Minister, contested from Amethi. BJP secured two seats, one in Gujarat and one in Andhra Pradesh (now Telangana). 

9TH LOK SABHA (1989 – 1991) THE COALITION ERA

The period marked the first instance in history where no single party enjoyed a majority in the Lok Sabha. The emergence of ‘Mandir and Mandal’ politics stirred unrest across a polarised nation. The Lok Sabha remained in session for 15 months, from December 1989 to March 1991. With no party securing a majority, the National Front coalition assumed power, with Janata Dal’s VP Singh sworn in as the Prime Minister.

The Congress suffered a sharp defeat, securing less than half (197) of the seats it won in the 1984 elections. The Janata Dal trailed with 143 seats, followed by the BJP, which emerged as the biggest gainer, increasing its tally of MPs from two to 85. However, the BJP withdrew its support from the National Front in November 1990 over the OBC issue. VP Singh lost a vote of confidence, leading to his resignation and the collapse of the National Front Government. Chandra Shekhar succeeded him as the Prime Minister with outside support from the Congress party. He held the position for seven months, marking the second-shortest duration after that of Charan Singh. 

10TH LOK SABHA ( 1991 – 1996)  A NEW ECONOMIC DAWN

The Tenth Lok Sabha was constituted on June 21, 1991, just one month after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. With voter turnout standing at 55.88% among the 543 constituencies, it marked a decline from the 1989 elections and marked the lowest in the history of Indian elections. Congress selected PV Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister. Rao’s tenure witnessed a transformation in India’s economic policy, heralding the beginning of the liberalisation era. 

The verdict resulted in a hung parliament, with Congress emerging as the single largest party with 232 seats. The BJP won 120 seats, followed by the Janata Dal with 59 seats. The BJP’s national vote share increased from 11% in 1989 to 20%.

11TH LOK SABHA ( 1996 – 1998)  POLITICAL VOLATILITY 

The 11th Lok Sabha session was emblematic of the upheaval and transformation that characterised the Indian political scene in the late 1990s. The electorate’s decision not to grant a majority to any single party led to the formation of transient governments with brief tenures. The dynamics of coalitions and the growing influence of regional parties on national politics became more pronounced. Disenchantment with the Congress party, which was mired in disgrace due to corruption scandals, fueled the rise of caste-based and regional political entities. 

The absence of a clear majority resulted in the United Front coalition forming the government, backed by the Congress party. The Prime Ministership saw multiple occupants: Atal Bihari Vajpayee of BJP briefly held the position from May 16 to June 1, 1996, followed by HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral of the Janata Dal-led United Front, who led the government from 1996 to 1998. Sharad Pawar, then in Congress, emerged as a prominent figure in the opposition, while P A Sangma served as the Speaker of the House.

12TH LOK SABHA (1998 – 1999) VAJPAYEE ERA BEGINS

The 12th Lok Sabha, spanning from March 10, 1998, to April 26, 1999, holds the record for the shortest session in Indian parliamentary history, a testament to the era’s coalition fragility. Under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rose to national prominence, steering the National Democratic Alliance at the centre. Vajpayee’s second term as Prime Minister saw the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda gain wider acceptance across the country. The successful Pokhran nuclear tests during this period bolstered patriotic fervour. Despite these achievements, Vajpayee’s government was short-lived, succumbing to a no-confidence motion by a single vote, leading to its collapse after 13 months. 

The 12th Lok Sabha holds the record for the shortest session in Indian parliamentary history, a testament to the era’s coalition fragility. Under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, BJP rose to national prominence

13TH LOK SABHA (1999 – 2004)  VAJPAYEE- COALITION BUILDER

Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s charisma propelled the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to power, marking the first time a non-Congress government completed a full term. This period brought a semblance of stability to the Lok Sabha. The 1999 general elections, conducted in five stages from September 5 to October 3, represented the lengthiest electoral campaign in India’s post-independence history. Spanning 543 constituencies, the electoral battle saw the participation of seven national, 40 state, and 122 registered parties.

This election also witnessed the trial use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) alongside traditional ballot papers. BJP secured a decisive victory with 182 seats. Congress and CPI (M) followed with 114 and 33 seats, respectively. The BJP forged a coalition with 24 diverse parties to establish the NDA.

Vajpayee’s third term as Prime Minister was distinguished by significant economic and infrastructural initiatives, including the ambitious Golden Quadrilateral Project. His diplomatic endeavours for peace with Pakistan and his celebrated status post-Kargil War augmented his personal allure. However, the 2001 Parliament attack, the 2002 Gujarat disturbances, and internal ideological rifts within the BJP led to the NDA’s eventual downfall. 

14TH LOK SABHA (2004-2009)  MANMOHAN SINGH’S PROGRESSIVE GOVERNANCE

In an unexpected political turnaround, the Congress party returned to power, establishing the United Progressive Alliance and securing a full term for the 14th Lok Sabha under the leadership of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Despite the shadows cast by the Global Financial Crisis, India witnessed robust economic expansion and the enactment of pivotal statutes such as the Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). Singh also signed the historic US nuclear deal, elevating India’s position as a nuclear power. 

The electoral process unfolded in four stages from April 20 to May 28, 2004, encompassing 543 constituencies across 28 states and 7 union territories. This election marked the inaugural use of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), with the Election Commission deploying a million units nationwide, resulting in the conservation of approximately 8,000 metric tonnes of paper. Nonetheless, the total number of polling stations saw a reduction from nearly 770,000 to 687,000.

The election also signified a reconfiguration of India’s electoral map, being the maiden general election for the newly constituted states of Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, and Jharkhand. In compliance with a landmark 2002 Supreme Court ruling, candidates were mandated for the first time to divulge details pertaining to their educational background, financial assets, and any criminal records.

15TH LOK SABHA (2009-2014) DOWNFALL OF CONGRESS

The 15th Lok Sabha elections witnessed the Congress, leading the United Progressive Alliance, secure a decisive victory, enhancing its tally to 206 seats and marking its strongest showing since 1991. This triumph enabled Manmohan Singh to embark on a second term as Prime Minister, becoming the first leader since Indira Gandhi to serve two full terms. 

However, the period was not without its challenges. The government faced a deceleration in economic growth, inefficiencies in welfare program delivery, and a series of corruption allegations, all of which eroded public confidence in the ruling party.

The 2009 elections were also remarkable for the introduction of Photo-Elector rolls, with the exception of Assam, Nagaland, and Jammu and Kashmir. There was a notable increase in female participation, with 556 women candidates—a more than 50% rise from the previous elections.  Meira Kumar served as Speaker and Sushma Swaraj was Leader of the Opposition.

16TH LOK SABHA (2014 – 2019)  ‘MODI WAVE’ SWEEPS COUNTRY

Capitalising on the momentum of the ‘Modi Wave’, BJP promised a new epoch of ‘good days’ Acche Din, positioning itself as a beacon of change against the inertia and alleged corruption of the preceding Congress government. Narendra Modi took office on 26 May 2014 as the 14th prime minister of India, heralding a new chapter in the nation’s governance.

The Lok Sabha welcomed an unprecedented number of first-time members, with 315 new faces among its ranks, signalling a significant shift in the composition and focus of the Parliament. For the first time in three decades, a single party—the BJP—surpassed the halfway mark on its own, securing 282 seats, supplemented by 54 seats from its allies, thus commanding a comfortable majority.

The opposition found itself significantly diminished, with the Congress party reduced to 44 seats. The BJP’s landslide victory was so comprehensive that no opposition party met the 10% seat threshold required to appoint an official Leader of the Opposition. Sumitra Mahajan assumed the role of Speaker of the House.

In stark contrast to prior Lok Sabhas, which were often precarious coalition governments reliant on the support of allies, the BJP-led government enjoyed a stable majority, allowing it to govern unencumbered. The administration quickly implemented bold policies, such as the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and demonetization, aimed at addressing the economic challenges inherited from the previous regime. Moreover, initiatives like ‘Digital India’ and ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ became synonymous with the government’s drive for social advancement and cleanliness. The 2014 elections also marked the debut of the ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) voting option, adding a new dimension to the democratic process.

17TH LOK SABHA (2019-2024) MODI ERA CONTINUES

The 17th Lok Sabha elections of 2019-2024 marked a significant phase in Indian politics, with BJP riding the ‘Modi wave’ to secure 303 seats, and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) amassing a total of 350 seats. Congress, in contrast, managed to win only 52 seats. Narendra Modi’s re-election as Prime Minister made him the third leader in India’s history to achieve a single-party majority in consecutive terms, following in the footsteps of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.

During Modi’s second tenure, the government’s focus on national security, the management of the COVID-19 pandemic, and economic growth became key concerns. The period was also marked by the passage of significant yet divisive legislation, including the Citizenship Amendment Act, the introduction of three new criminal laws, and the Women’s Reservation Bill. The tenure was punctuated by various challenges such as farmers’ unrest, communal clashes, and the abrogation of Article 370, which led to heated debates and discussions in the Lok Sabha.

Narendra Modi’s re-election as Prime Minister made him the third leader in Indian history to achieve a single-party majority in consecutive terms, following in the footsteps of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi

The 2019 elections were notable for being the largest ever in the world, with polls conducted across 543 constituencies in seven phases. A historic number of female candidates, 726, contested in these elections, resulting in the highest ever representation of women in the Lok Sabha at nearly 14%. Om Birla was elected as the Speaker of the House.

The BJP’s victory, with a vote share of 37.5%—the highest for any political party since the 1984 elections—underscored the party’s increased dominance. The Congress, despite its limited seat count, garnered over 40% of the votes in certain areas, with Rahul Gandhi achieving a notable victory in Wayanad, Kerala, although he lost the traditional family seat of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh. 

For the first time, Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) were fully supplemented by a “Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail” (VVPAT), enhancing the transparency of the electoral process. The elections also saw an intense battle on digital platforms, with social media becoming a significant battleground marred by misinformation and fake news. 

Geeta Singh

Geeta Singh has spent 20 years covering cinema, music, and society giving new dimensions to feature writing. She has to her credit the editorship of a film magazine. She is also engaged in exploring the socio-economic diversity of Indian politics. She is the co-founder of Parliamentarian.

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