To get a responsive government.

Hartosh Bal in the Open magazine:

The Congress has over time developed what can be best described as an optimal approach in such a democracy. It is a party designed to lurch in any possible direction, depending on voter expectation, unhindered by ideas or ideology. It is no surprise that the longer a party survives and bids for power, the more it tends to resemble the Congress—take the BJP or for that matter the DMK or the Akali Dal or even the Left. There may be legacies difficult to shed but in practice the shape each party takes is very similar. If the Congress has lost the huge appeal it once had, it is not because it has deviated from some ideal, it is because other parties have learnt to conduct their politics from the Congress.

This has not been a conscious process; it is the result of responding to the requirements of our democracy.[Open]

It is simplistic to blame the requirements of Indian democracy for lack of ideas and ideologies among Indian political parties. Political parties in India respond not to the requirements of democracy but to the requirements of electoral politics. Electoral politics is an essential democratic process but not sufficient by itself to sustain a robust liberal representative democracy.

As Pratap Bhanu Mehta has often stated, elections are an inherently blunt instrument of control. Despite heavy anti-incumbent voting, elections seem to discipline politicians less than we would like. Their effectiveness as mechanisms of accountability are contingent, fraught with unintended consequences and the incentives they impose upon policy makers need to be understood in more precise ways.

If these “requirements of democracy” have eroded the various parties of their ideas and ideologies, it is something to be worried about. Firstly, as one party or candidate becomes indistinguishable from the other, the cost of elections rises and electoral malpractices increase. As the distinguishing characteristics of parties and individual candidates — based on policies, ideas and ideologies — matter less and less to elections, what increasingly differentiates one party from another, is the fund raising capacity and ‘winnability’ of candidates, not ideology or ideas.

Secondly, it gives rise to the crassest form of identity politics to mobilise support, usually based on religious, caste and sectarian considerations. Exacerbating social tensions provide the best opportunity for the political parties to mobilise support by creating vote-banks. Failing which, parties are liable to resort to cheap populism and short-term promises (loan waivers, free electricity, caste-based reservations etc) which harm the state and the society in the long run.

Even within the Indian context of an ill-formed democracy, these “requirements of democracy” can not be a justification for intellectual bankruptcy of our political parties and the electoral malpractices pervading our system. Unfortunately, what it takes to win elections is not necessarily what it takes to respond to the requirements of the citizens, even of the core supporters who voted that party in to power. A representative government is not always a responsive government.

The real requirement of our democracy is to ensure that a responsive party metamorphoses into a responsive government. Responsive government, which in Birch’s words, is a government that is responsive to public opinion, that pursues policies that are prudent and mutually consistent, and that is accountable to the representatives of the electors.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.