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A Disjointed Reading of Indian Political Parties

A Disjointed Reading of Indian Political Parties

A Disjointed Reading of Indian Political Parties Rajeshwari Deshpande Since the 1990s, there has been a renewed interest in the working of the Indian party system. A combination of factors like the regionalisation of politics and gradual dispersal of political competition; Mandalisation and unfolding of social contestations; multiple realignments of national and regional level political forces; the arrival of coalition politics; and the decline and partial revival of the Congress Party contributed to the renewal of studies of Indian political parties and party systems during the last two decades. The book under review is a part of this growing pool of studies. However, it presents a rather disjointed reading of the parties and of the functioning of Indian democracy. Broadly speaking, the changing nature of political parties and of politics in recent times has evoked two kinds of responses in the academic and journalistic circles. One kind of response is generally appreciative of the arrival of a competitive multiparty system in India and links it to gradual expansion of Indian democracy. The other sees these developments as an erosion of the rules of liberal democracy, and growing political instability leading to a deepening crisis of Indian democracy. In its discussion of the issues facing Indian political parties, Short on Democracy: Issues Facing Indian Political Parties tries to bring together both these perspectives, but in a clumsy manner. As the title of the book suggests, the editorial perspective of the book clearly sees the functioning of political parties as problematic and

A Disjointed Reading of Indian Political Parties

Rajeshwari Deshpande

tone and texture of the essays in the collection is not the same and that makes it a rather incoherent comment on parties and Indian politics.

Arvind Sivaramakrishnan’s introduction to the book and the first essay by Sukumar Muralidharan touch upon

S
ince the 1990s, there has been a renewed interest in the working of the Indian party system. A combination of factors like the regionalisation of politics and gradual dispersal of political competition; Mandalisation and unfol ding of social contestations; multiple realignments of national and regional level political forces; the arrival of coalition politics; and the decline and partial revival of the Congress Party contributed to the renewal of studies of Indian political parties and party systems during the last two decades. The book under review is a part of this growing pool of studies. However, it presents a rather disjointed reading of the parties and of the functioning of Indian democracy.

Broadly speaking, the changing nature of political parties and of politics in recent times has evoked two kinds of responses in the academic and journalistic circles. One kind of response is generally appreciative of the arrival of a competitive multiparty system in India and links it to gradual expansion of Indian democracy. The other sees these developments as an erosion of the rules of liberal democracy, and growing political instability leading to a deepening crisis of Indian democracy. In its discussion of the issues facing Indian political parties, Short on Democracy: Issues Facing Indian Political Parties tries to bring together both these perspectives, but in a clumsy manner. As the title of the book suggests, the editorial perspective of the book clearly sees the functioning of political parties as problematic and “short on democracy”. The distrust towards the parties is complemented by hope about the working of democracy as millions of the poor and marginalised put their faith in it. The argument leading to this hope

book review

Short on Democracy: Issues Facing Indian Political Parties edited by Arvind Sivaramakrishnan

(Gurgaon: Imprint One), 2007; pp 260, Rs 595.

develops as the book progresses from journalistic criticisms of parties, mainly in terms of their leadership and of internal organisation, to a more academic discussion of structural and political factors behind the functioning of these parties, their political performance and the disconnect between the parties and democracy. The last essay (a reproduction of the first chapter in Javed Alam’s celebrated book Who Wants Democracy? Orient Longman, 2004) discusses in detail the tenacity of Indian democracy in spite of several odds. However, the link between these two kinds of arguments is missing in the book, especially in its editorial introduction.

Uneven Tone

The book is an eclectic collection of nine essays. Three of them assess the political careers of individual parties like the Congress (Zoya Hasan), the Bahujan Samaj Party – BSP (Sudha Pai) and the Samajwadi Party (V Krishna Ananth). A few others offer comments of a more general kind on the overall nature of the party system and its functioning. There are three more stand-alone essays that address issues related to parties in an indirect manner. C Lakshmanan inspects the more specific phenomenon of fan clubs of film stars to link it to the politics of Tamil Nadu. Radhika Desai’s essay (originally published in the New Left Review) critically comments on Hindutva politics in its analysis of the 2004 parliamentary election outcome. The third is Alam’s piece on “democracy and the people” mentioned earlier. The

november 28, 2009

several issues and quote extensively from different scholarly works in order to develop a detailed overall comment on the nature of Indian democracy and party politics. In his discussion of the changing forms of authoritarianism in party politics, Muralidharan describes it as the “tyranny of identity”. He argues that Indian democracy is beginning to approach the model of consociationalism where elite recruitment is through mobilisation of caste and community around narrow political agendas around elections (52). He sees it as an upshot of the “hesitant pathway that India adopted towards economic and political modernity” and also that of lack of transparent and democratic methods of leadership choice. The crisis of the political parties thus looms large for Muralidharan as the crisis for Indian democracy.

A similar perspective on the fate of political parties is shared by Radhika Ramaseshan as she discusses the “fault lines in the Indian party system”, by Neena Vyas in what she describes as the “personality cult in Indian politics” and by V Kri sh na Ananth in his essay on the Samajwadi P arty. The essays say a number of things in common regarding the failures of leadership, lack of internal organisation and parochial visions that parties follow in the wake of narrow identity politics. The implicit point of comparison here are the parties of the “more advanced democracies” of the west. It is interesting to note how many of the essays in the collection extensively quote North American scholarship on Indian politics of the 1950s and the 1960s to understand and analyse the party politics of the 1990s and later. The changing nature of party politics in India has been extensively studied in the past few years (Hasan 2004; Sridharan and DeSouza 2007) and the literature recognises the fact that Indian “parties are under pressure” (Suri 2005). However,

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the studies of Indian parties during the last two decades also recognise the distinctive nature of Indian democracy (in particular and of the global south in general) and the peculiar socio-economic context in which it operates. This recognition is not a mere celebration of the procedural successes of Indian democracy or a mere sympathetic reading of the working of the parties in India. But the recognition marks a different kind of reading of democracy all over the world and in a comparative perspective. The first set of essays in the book under review do not seem to be aware of these changing perspectives and instead focus on personalities and their failures in discussing the challenges before the Indian parties.

Pai’s essay on the BSP in Uttar Pradesh helps us understand the challenges in a better manner as it discusses the “paradox of Indian democracy” where, while the democratic institutions have survived rapid social change, we are also witnessing internal decline and the decay of parties as institutions (101). Pai tries to explain how the crisis of the political parties is, in a way, a crisis of Indian society that remains hierarchical, communal and patriarchal in spite of much social change. The chapter by Hasan on the decline and revival of the Congress Party in the post-Indira Gandhi phase takes the argument further in exploring the policy dimensions of the working of parties and the state. She describes Indian democracy as a “two track democracy” that on the one hand, offers benefits to the elite and on the other hand, gives voice to the common people. In explaining the revival of the Congress in terms of its changing focus on policies for the poor, Hasan shows how Indian parties and the state face a difficult task in balancing the two dimensions of democracy in India.

The complex nature of democratic endeavours of the last two decades and their implications for electoral and party politics are elaborately discussed by Desai in her analysis of the election verdict in 2004. It is a long essay that tracks the unfol ding of what Desai refers to as the, “grim new dynamic” of the 1990s. The complex and fractured verdict of the 2004 came amidst multiple instabilities and churnings unleashed by the dynamics of the 1990s. While investigating the main sources of political instability implicit in the electoral verdict, the essay offers a detailed comment on the longterm political trends, situating them in the changing context of India’s political economy. It also comments on the responsibilities and difficulties that the Congress Party faces both as a ruling party and also as a mainstream political party that can halt the march of Hindutva. Desai talks of the disconnect between the nature of the Congress’ support base and its policies as the main challenge for the party.

Inherent Disconnect

In a way it is the disconnect inherent to Indian democracy that many of the essays in the volume touch upon. As Alam argues in his concluding essay, democracy in India has acquired deeper roots over the last 50 years and people are more favourably disposed towards it today. This hope creates a responsibility for the political parties to represent

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BOOK REVIEW

people’s aspirations and to deliver democratic goods to them. But the stark failure of the parties in this respect brings out the other aspect of the functioning of democracy where elites try to appropriate it and to limit it to bare procedures. The crisis for political parties in India in this sense becomes a part of a larger crisis for the democratic system. Although the book gives some useful pointers towards the understanding

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of this larger crisis, it fails to situate the working of political parties in it. Even in terms of assessment of the parties it does not pay adequate attention to many issues like the distinctive survival of the communist parties in India and the challenges they face, the issues of party finances, policy discourse and the role of parties as governing agencies, etc. Instead the main argument of the book and especially its editorial framework

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limits itself to one dimensional scrutiny of the work of parties.

Rajeshwari Deshpande (rajeshwarid@unipune. ernet.in) is with the Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Pune.

References

DeSouza, Peter and E Sridharan, (ed. (2007): India’s Political Parties (New Delhi: Sage).

Hasan, Zoya, ed. (2004): Parties and Party Politics in India (New Delhi: OUP (paperback))

Suri, K C (2005): Parties Under Pressure, Occasional Paper (Delhi: Lokniti-CSDS).

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november 28, 2009 vol xliv no 48

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

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