Polity – Political parties Notes
Political parties play an important role in the rise of democracies, in the formation of constitutional designs, in electoral politics and in the making and working of governments.
Political parties act as vehicles for federal sharing of political power and as negotiators of social divisions in the arena of democratic politics.
We should focus on the nature and work of political parties, especially in our country.
Why do we need political parties?
Political parties are visible institutions in a democracy. Democracy is equal to political parties for ordinary citizens.
About a hundred years ago, there were few countries of the world that had any political party. Now there are few that do not have parties.
A political party is a group of people who come together to contest elections and hold power in the government. They agree on some policies and programmes for society to promote the collective good. Parties try to persuade people why their policies are better than others. They seek to implement these policies by winning popular support through elections.
Parties are a part of society and involve in partisanship. Thus, a party is known by which part it stands for, which policies it supports and whose interests it upholds. A political party has three components:
- the leaders,
- the active members and
- the followers
Political parties fill political offices and exercise political power. Parties do so by performing a series of functions:
- Parties contest elections. In most democracies, political parties select their candidates in different ways to fight an election. In some countries, such as the USA, members and supporters of a party choose their candidates. Now more and more countries are following this method. In other countries like India, top party leaders choose candidates for contesting elections.
- Parties put forward different policies and programmes. The voters have to choose from them on the basis of their opinions and views on policies. But government can’t handle such a large variety of views. In a democracy, political parties collect a large number of opinions to direct the government to formulate policies. A party reduces a vast multitude of opinions into a few basic positions. A government is expected to base policies on the line of the ruling party.
- Parties play a decisive role in making laws for a country. Formally, laws are debated and passed in the legislature. But since most of the members belong to a party, they go by the direction of the party leadership, irrespective of their personal opinions.
- Parties form and run governments. As we noted last year, the big policy decisions are taken by a political executive that comes from the political parties. Parties recruit leaders, train them and then make them ministers to run the government in the way they want.
- Those parties that lose in the elections play the role of opposition to the parties in power, by voicing different views and criticising the government for its failures or wrong policies. Opposition parties also mobilise opposition to the government.
- Parties shape public opinion. They raise and highlight issues. Parties have lakhs of members and activists spread all over the country. Many of the pressure groups are extensions of political parties among different sections of society. Parties sometimes also launch movements for the resolution of problems faced by people. Often opinions in society crystallise on the lines parties take.
- Parties provide people access to government machinery and welfare schemes implemented by governments. For an ordinary citizen, it is easy to approach a local party leader than a government officer.
That is why, they feel close to parties even when they do not fully trust them. Parties have to be responsive to people’s needs and demands. Otherwise, people can reject those parties in the next elections.
we need political parties because they perform all these functions. Every candidate in the elections will be independent. But no one will be able to make any promises to the people about any major policy changes. The government may be formed, but its utility will remain ever uncertain. Elected representatives will be accountable to their constituency for what they do in the locality. But no one will be responsible for how the country will be run.
We can also look at the non-party-based elections to the panchayat in many states. The parties do not contest formally, but the village gets split into more than one faction, each of which puts up a ‘panel’ of its candidates. That is the reason political parties are found in almost all countries of the world, whether these countries are big or small, old or new, developed or developing.
The rise of political parties is directly linked to the emergence of representative democracies.
Large societies need representative democracy. They need agency to gather different views on various issues and to present these to the government. They needed some ways to bring various representatives together so that a responsible government could be formed. They needed a mechanism to make policies, justify or oppose, and support or restrain the government. Political parties are a necessary condition for democracy.
How many parties should we have?
In a democracy, any group of citizens is free to form a political party. In this formal sense, there are a large number of political parties in each country. More than 750 parties are registered with the Election Commission of India. But not all these parties are serious contenders in the elections. Usually, only a handful of parties win the race elections and form the government.
In some countries, only one party is allowed to control and run the government. These are called one-party systems. Just like China, only the Communist Party is allowed to rule. Although, legally speaking, people are free to form political parties but the electoral system does not permit free competition for power. We cannot consider the one-party system as a good option because this is not a democratic option. Any democratic system must allow at least two parties to compete in elections and provide a fair chance for the competing parties to come to power.
In some countries, power usually changes between two main parties. The main two parties have a chance of winning a majority of seats to form a government. Such a party system is called a two-party system. The United States of America and the United Kingdom are examples of a two-party system.
If several parties compete for power, but more than two parties have a chance of coming to power either on their own strength or with the alliance, we call it a multiparty system. India is an example of a multiparty system.
In a multiparty system, the government is formed by various parties coming together in a coalition. When several parties join hands for the purpose of contesting elections and winning power in a multiparty system, it is called an alliance or a front. For example, in India, there were three such major alliances in the 2004 parliamentary elections– the National Democratic Alliance, the United Progressive Alliance and the Left Front.
The multiparty system often appears very messy and leads to political instability. At the same time, this system allows a variety of interests and opinions to enjoy political representation.
A party system is not something any country can choose. It evolves over a long time, depending on the nature of society, its social and regional divisions, its history of politics and its system of elections. These cannot be changed very quickly.
Each country develops a party system that is conditioned by its special circumstances. For example, if India has evolved a multiparty system. The social and geographical diversity in such a large country is not easily absorbed by two or even three parties. No system is ideal for all countries and all situations.
Popular participation in political parties
Political parties are facing a crisis because they are very unpopular and the citizens are indifferent to political parties. The available evidence is only partly true for India. The evidence, based on a series of large sample surveys conducted over several decades, shows that:
- Political parties do not enjoy much trust among the people in South Asia. The proportion of those who say their trust in political parties is ‘not much’ or ‘not at all’ is more than those who have ‘some’ or ‘great’ trust.
- The same is true of most other democracies as well. Political parties are one of the least trusted institutions all over the world.
- Yet the level of participation in the activities of political parties was fairly high. The proportion of those who said they were members of some political party was higher in India than in many advanced countries like Canada, Japan, Spain and South Korea.
- Over the last three decades, the proportion of those who report to be members of political parties in India has gone up steadily.
- The proportion of those who say they feel ‘close to a political party’ has also gone up in India in this period.
Democracies that follow a federal system all over the world tend to have two kinds of political parties: one party is present in only one of the federal units and other parties are present in several or all units of the federation. This is the case in India as well.
There are some country-wide parties, which are called ‘national parties’. These parties have their units in various states. But all these units follow the same policies, programmes and strategies that are decided at the national level.
Every party in the country has to register with the Election Commission. While the Commission treats all parties equally, it offers some special facilities to large and established parties. These parties are given a unique symbol – only the official candidates of that party can use that election symbol.
Parties get this privilege and some other special facilities are ‘recognised’ by the Election Commission for this purpose. That is why these parties are called, ‘recognised political parties’.
The Election Commission has laid down detailed criteria for the proportion of votes and seats that a party must get in order to be a recognised party. A party that secures at least six per cent of the total votes in an election to the Legislative Assembly of a State and wins at least two seats is recognised as a State party.
A party that secures at least six per cent of the total votes in Lok Sabha elections or Assembly elections in four States and wins at least four seats in the Lok Sabha is recognised as a national party.
According to this classification, there were seven recognised national parties in the country in 2019. Let us learn something about each of these parties.
All India Trinamool Congress (AITC): Launched on 1 January 1998 under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee. Recognised as a national party in 2016. The party’s symbol is flowers and grass. Committed to secularism and federalism. Has been in power in West Bengal since 2011. Also has a presence in Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Tripura. In the General Elections held in 2019, it got 4.07 per cent votes and won 22 seats, making it the fourth-largest party in the Lok Sabha.
Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP): Formed in 1984 under the leadership of Kanshi Ram. Seeks to represent and secure power for the Bahujan samaj which includes the Dalits, Adivasis, OBCs and religious minorities. Draws inspiration from the ideas and teachings of Sahu Maharaj, Mahatma Phule, Periyar Ramaswami Naicker and Babasaheb Ambedkar. Stands for the cause of securing the interests and welfare of the Dalits and oppressed people. It has its main base in the state of Uttar Pradesh and a substantial presence in neighbouring states like Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, Delhi and Punjab. Formed government in Uttar Pradesh several times by taking the support of different parties at different times. In the Lok Sabha elections held in 2019, it polled about 3.63 per cent of votes and secured 10 seats in the Lok Sabha.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP): Founded in 1980 by reviving the erstwhile Bharatiya Jana Sangh, formed by Syama Prasad Mukherjee in 1951. Wants to build a strong and modern India by drawing inspiration from India’s ancient culture and values; and Deendayal Upadhyaya’s ideas of integral humanism and Antyodaya. Cultural nationalism (or ‘Hindutva’) is an important element in its conception of Indian nationhood and politics. Wants full territorial and political integration of Jammu and Kashmir with India, a uniform civil code for all people living in the country irrespective of religion, and a ban on religious conversions. Its support base increased substantially in the 1990s. Earlier limited to north and west and to urban areas, the party expanded its support in the south, east, the northeast and to rural areas. Came to power in 1998 as the leader of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) including several regional parties. Emerged as the largest party with 303 members in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Currently leads the ruling NDA government at the Centre.
Communist Party of India (CPI): Formed in 1925. Believes in Marxism-Leninism, secularism and democracy. Opposed to the forces of secessionism and communalism. Accepts parliamentary democracy as a means of promoting the interests of the working class, farmers and the poor. Became weak after the split in the party in 1964 which led to the formation of the CPI(M). Significant presence in the states of Kerala, West Bengal, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Its support base had gradually declined over the years. It secured less than 1 per cent votes and 2 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Advocates the coming together of all left parties to build a strong left front.
Communist Party of India – Marxist (CPI-M): Founded in 1964. Believes in Marxism-Leninism. Supports socialism, secularism and democracy and opposes imperialism and communalism. Accepts democratic elections as a useful and helpful means for securing the objective of socioeconomic justice in India. Enjoys strong support in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, especially among the poor, factory workers, farmers, agricultural labourers and the intelligentsia. Critical of the new economic policies that allow the free flow of foreign capital and goods into the country. Was in power in West Bengal without a break for 34 years. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it won about 1.75 per cent of votes and 3 seats.
Indian National Congress (INC): Popularly known as the Congress Party. One of the oldest parties in the world. Founded in 1885 and has experienced many splits. Played a dominant role in Indian politics at the national and state level for several decades after India’s Independence. Under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, the party sought to build a modern secular democratic republic in India. The ruling party at the centre till 1977 and then from 1980 to 1989. After 1989, its support declined, but it continues to be present throughout the country, cutting across social divisions. A centrist party (neither rightist nor leftist) in its ideological orientation, the party espouses secularism and the welfare of weaker sections and minorities. The INC supports new economic reforms but with a human face. Leader of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government from 2004 to 2019. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, it won 19.5% votes and 52 seats.
Nationalist Congress Party (NCP): Formed in 1999 following a split in the Congress party. Espouses democracy, Gandhian secularism, equity, social justice and federalism. Wants that high offices in government be confined to natural-born citizens of the country. A major party in Maharashtra and has a significant presence in Meghalaya, Manipur and Assam. A coalition partner in the state of Maharashtra in alliance with the Congress. Since 2004, a member of the United Progressive Alliance. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, it won 1.4% of the votes and 5 seats.
Other than these seven parties, most of the major parties of the country are classified by the Election Commission as ‘State parties’. These are commonly referred to as regional parties. Yet these parties need not be regional in their ideology or outlook.
Some of these parties are all India parties that happen to have succeeded only in some states. Parties like the Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal have national-level political organisations with units in several states. Some of these parties like Biju Janata Dal, Sikkim Democratic Front, Mizo National Front and Telangana Rashtra Samithi are conscious about their State identity.
Over the last three decades, the number and strength of these parties has expanded. This made the Parliament of India politically more and more diverse. The national party is not able to secure on its own a majority in the Lok Sabha, until 2014.
As a result, the national parties are compelled to form alliances with State parties. Since 1996, nearly every one of the State parties has got an opportunity to be a part of one or the other national-level coalition government. This has contributed to the strengthening of federalism and democracy in our country.
Challenges to political parties
Since parties are the most visible face of democracy, it is natural that people blame parties for whatever is wrong with the working of democracy.
All over the world, people express strong dissatisfaction with the failure of political parties to perform their functions well. This is the case in our country too.
Popular dissatisfaction and criticism have focussed on four problem areas in the working of political parties. Political parties need to face and overcome these challenges in order to remain effective instruments of democracy.
The first challenge is lack of internal democracy within parties. All over the world, there is a tendency in political parties towards the concentration of power in one or a few leaders at the top. Parties do not keep membership registers, do not hold organisational meetings, and do not conduct internal elections regularly. Ordinary members of the party do not get sufficient information on what happens inside the party. As a result, the leaders use greater power to make decisions in the name of the party. Since one or few leaders exercise paramount power in the party, those who disagree with the leadership find it difficult to continue in the party. More than loyalty to party principles and policies, personal loyalty to the leader becomes more important.
The second challenge of dynastic succession is related to the first one. Since most political parties do not practice open and transparent procedures for their functioning, there are very few ways for an ordinary worker to rise to the top in a party. Those leaders are in a position of unfair advantage to favour people close to them or even their family members. In many parties, the top positions are always controlled by members of one family. This is unfair to other members of that party. This is also bad for democracy since people who do not have adequate experience or popular support come to occupy positions of power. This tendency is present in some measure all over the world, including in some of the older democracies.
The third challenge is about the growing role of money and muscle power in parties, especially during elections. Since parties are focused only on winning elections, they tend to use short-cuts to win elections. They tend to nominate those candidates who have or can raise lots of money. Rich people and companies who give funds to the parties tend to have an influence on the policies and decisions of the party. In some cases, parties support criminals who can win elections. Democrats all over the world are worried about the increasing role of rich people and big companies in democratic politics.
The fourth challenge is that parties do not offer a meaningful choice to the voters. In recent years, there has been a decline in the ideological differences among parties in some parts of the world. For example, the difference between the Labour Party and the Conservative Party in Britain is very little. They agree on more fundamental aspects but differ only in details on how policies are to be framed and implemented. In our country, the differences among all the major parties on economic policies have also reduced. Those who want different policies have no option available to them. Sometimes people cannot even elect very different leaders either, because the same set of leaders keeps shifting from one party to another.
How can parties be reformed?
Let us look at some of the recent efforts and suggestions in our country to reform political parties and their leaders:
- The Constitution was amended to prevent elected MLAs and MPs from changing parties. This was done because many elected representatives indulged in defection to become ministers or for cash rewards. Now the law says that if any MLA or MP changes parties, he or she will lose the seat in the legislature. This new law has helped bring defection down. At the same time, this has made any dissent even more difficult. MPs and MLAs have to accept whatever the party leaders decide.
- The Supreme Court passed an order to reduce the influence of money and criminals. Now, it is mandatory for every candidate who contests elections to file an affidavit giving details of his property and criminal cases pending against him. The new system has made a lot of information available to the public. But there is no system to check if the information given by the candidates is true. As yet we do not know if it has led to a decline in the influence of the rich and the criminals.
- The Election Commission passed an order making it necessary for political parties to hold their organisational elections and file their income tax returns. The parties have started doing so but sometimes it is mere formality. It is not clear if this step has led to greater internal democracy in political parties. Besides these, many suggestions are often made to reform political parties:
- A law should be made to regulate the internal affairs of political parties. It should be made compulsory for political parties to maintain a register of its members, to follow their constitution, to have an independent authority, to act as a judge in case of party disputes, and to hold open elections to the highest posts.
- It should be made mandatory for political parties to give a minimum number of tickets, about one-third, to women candidates. Similarly, there should be a quota for women in the party’s decision-making bodies.
- There should be state funding of elections. The government should give parties money to support their election expenses. This support could be given in kind: petrol, paper, telephone, etc. Or it could be given in cash based on the votes secured by the party in the last election.
These suggestions have not yet been accepted by political parties. We must be very careful about legal solutions to political problems. Over-regulation of political parties can be counter productive. This would force all parties to find ways to cheat the law. Besides, political parties will not agree to pass a law that they do not like.
There are two other ways in which political parties can be reformed.
One, people can put pressure on political parties. This can be done through petitions, publicity and agitations. Ordinary citizens, pressure groups and movements and the media can play an important role. If political parties feel that they would lose public support by not taking up reforms, they would become more serious about reforms.
Two, political parties can improve if those who want this can join political parties. The quality of democracy depends on the degree of public participation. It is difficult to reform politics if ordinary citizens do not take part in it and simply criticise it from the outside. The problem of bad politics can be solved by more and better politics.
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