Why the party must go on

Survey evidence points to the importance of continuous politics,which requires parties to have a semblance of an organisation and regular activists.

Written by Suhas Palshikar | Published: October 18, 2013 3:59 am

Survey evidence points to the importance of continuous politics,which requires parties to have a semblance of an organisation and regular activists

Political parties in India today face a complex situation created by heightened expectations,a more aware citizenry,keener competition and the burden of suspicion. There is no need to list what is wrong with parties. Rather,we need to look at the factors that make it difficult for parties to handle those wrongs,and even to think of righting the wrongs. Three challenges haunt them: the legitimacy challenge; the identification challenge; and the challenge of continuous campaigning. As elections approach,these challenges — and the speed at which they need to be addressed — become more and more daunting.

Do you trust political parties? This question is likely to evoke mirth among some and scepticism among most. Unable to provide substantive alternatives,parties are seen as self-serving organisations at best,and plunderers of public resources at worst. Yet,they are also burdened with the task of supplying the manpower required to run democratic governments. Just as one is swamped by critics of parties,we also witness large numbers swamping party offices for candidatures around election time. This duality — that parties are greeted with severe cynicism and also accepted as the key organisational conduits to make democratic politics possible — requires attention.

If surveys are an indication,in 2004,45 per cent (of a nationally representative sample) said they did not trust parties. This figure has grown marginally to 48 per cent in 2013 (both figures from the India component of the “State of Democracy in South Asia” study,rounds one and two respectively,conducted by Lokniti-CSDS). Yet,parties continue to be the crucial pivots in our representative democracy. Ordinary voters understand this much more easily than many critics of the party. Therefore,scepticism notwithstanding,voters continue to do business with parties. Unfortunately,we do not have reliable figures about party membership,and parties tend to prefer a veil of secrecy rather than being upfront about their dealings and organisational matters. But there is some evidence that can be used to understand how voters relate to parties.

For instance,identification with a party is not rare. Since 1996,National Election Studies (NES) conducted by Lokniti-CSDS have found that at least one-quarter of the respondents say that they feel close to some party (or like a particular party). If anything,party identification recorded an increase in 1999 (30 per cent) and 2004 (50 per cent),only to come down to 28 per cent in 2009. Parties and their critics both would want this proportion to be higher,but this piece of data at least sobers our understanding of a disconnect between parties and voters.

Similarly,parties also continue to be the crucial factor in shaping voters’ choices at election-time: in 2009,the NES found that over 60 per cent of voters made their voting choice on the basis of parties. This puts tremendous onus on parties to position themselves smartly at election-time. More so because the popular assessment of parties,as stated above,is not favourable. A recent study conducted by Lokniti-CSDS found that almost 40 per cent of respondents claimed that they or their family were not habitual voters of any particular party. In other words,voters recognise the importance of parties but,so far,parties appear to have failed to forge more durable alignments with them. This contradictory evidence indicates parties have an uphill task in retaining and adding to their voter base.

People understand that parties alone can be the vehicle for an electoral contest and yet,public opinion is doubtful,if not cynical,about what parties are and what they can do. As parliamentary elections approach,this mixed scenario defines the tasks ahead for political parties — not any one party in particular,but the institution of the “party”. And if elected representatives are the main agents through whom parties relate to voters,the record of MPs is not at all encouraging for them: one in three persons rated their MP’s performance as dissatisfactory. If elected representatives are not doing their job,how can parties approach the electorate and gain their confidence?

The other area of concern for parties is that they have to undertake the dual task of catering to their core constituency and,at the same time,devise strategies to attract the less loyal voter. This is relevant to when voters make up their minds about whom to vote for. NES data suggest that compared to the mid-1990s,during the last couple of elections,voters appeared to have made up their minds much earlier. The 2004 election stands out since over half the electorate had made a decision even before the campaign began. But even in 1999 and 2009,more than one-third of voters had decided their vote before campaigning started. This has clear implications. No party can hope only to engage in a blitz of election propaganda during the campaign. Parties will be judged on the basis of what they do,who they identify with and how they relate to voters between two elections. When the next Lok Sabha election takes place,at least a third,and perhaps even two in every five voters,may already have decided their vote preference. This underscores the importance of continuous politics,which parties can only engage in if they have some semblance of an organisation and at least a skeletal team of regular party activists.

At the same time,NES data also show also that an average of 17 per cent voters make up their mind during the campaign. And then there is the “last-minute” voter. In the last three elections,the proportion of voters deciding “on the day of voting” has declined slightly,but on the whole,it continues to be in the range of one-quarter and even more. This is the time when emotive issues and last-minute contingencies are likely to shape outcomes.

In all probability,parties are not unaware of this temporal dimension of voting choice. The projection of Narendra Modi by the BJP on the one hand,and the desperate attempt by the Congress to put new welfare measures in place on the other,clearly indicate that parties are trying to build the constituency of early choosers. They would also have to cater to the late choosers and add considerable spice to the campaign. It is this task of balancing two different mindsets and constituencies that adds to the challenges that parties face,and makes their functioning more ad hoc.

The writer teaches political science at the University of Pune

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