The politics of depoliticization

Most political parties are looking for quick fixes to run their election campaigns

The fact that the Congress party held six rounds of talks with a political consultant and planned to hire his services to restructure the party and galvanize its election campaign reveals the commodification of political parties in India and the poverty of thought that underlies it. – tends. The talks failed because senior leaders were unwilling to give him carte blanche to lead the party.

His membership in the party might well have improved the electoral fortunes of the party, but would not have solved the structural crisis it faces, which must be solved by its own leaders, members and cadres, and not by external agents or a election specialist. To think that any individual, no matter how talented, can magically change the fortunes of a party is dishonest.

But this problem is not limited to the Congress party, most parties are looking for quick fixes to carry out their electoral campaigns. They turned to election specialists, campaign organizers and spin-doctors to help make the party more appealing to voters. This approach represents a policy of depoliticization that animates both politics in India, as indeed in many other countries after economic liberalization.

Contemporary democracy is unthinkable without political parties, but Indian parties are in bad shape in the absence of institutions that structure the distribution of power within parties and infrastructure in terms of offices, paid staff and assets financial. They do not have the organizational weight necessary to exercise a significant presence in politics between elections and in the daily lives of citizens. Parties are mobilizing to contest and win elections, but lately anti-BJP and non-BJP parties, with the exception of some regional parties, have not been very effective in this regard. Hence the rush to hire political consultants and the professionalization of election campaigns.

The dramatic victory of the BJP in the 2014 elections marked a turning point in this regard. It has changed the nature of political communication and the professionalization of campaign practices that other parties are trying to emulate and adopt.

However, reliance on election managers is problematic for several reasons. For starters, it bypasses internal processes within the parties by giving primacy to comments and information from external agents. It undermines party processes by building the campaign around the leader who does not represent an ideology, but promises certain benefits from the state in addition to good governance. This can neutralize the ideological component of the party platform by bypassing its programmatic agenda.

There is no place for the street and no place for political mobilization and social movements within this framework. It emasculates politics and parties as networks and the underlying strength of their associated social bonds.

Political parties are undoubtedly the cornerstones of democratic elections and representative democracy. Only parties can ensure consistency in large and heterogeneous electorates like India’s by negotiating public preferences on a range of issues to achieve consensus. The negotiations around it involve conflicting forces and pressures, but these are part and parcel of party processes.

The consultant-driven model of political management circumvents these processes, replacing them with ideologically agnostic methods focused primarily on the campaign trail that can weaken the party system. The campaign model is a standard US-style presidential model with outreach activities organized around the leader.

This model has been adopted by most political parties in India, with the exception of left-wing parties (which are organizationally strong but have proven electorally unviable beyond a few states) as most parties, as noted above, are organizationally weak and overly personalistic. The extensive client list of BJP political consultants from Congress to regional parties speaks to their importance.

Their importance has been heightened because astonishing victories, like that of the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal in 2021, are generally attributed to the political consultant, while underestimating the role of leaders, parties and their work. in the electoral success of evenings. Nevertheless, leaders find it convenient to outsource mobilization and communication work to professionals.

A politician’s most important job is to understand and mobilize public opinion, but many leaders are willing to hand over this critical function to an outside entity rather than let party functionaries gauge the popular mood. Their replacement by the consultant and young marketing professionals signifies a major shift in the conduct of politics in India today.

The biggest challenge facing opposition parties is the repressive ideology and policies of the ruling party, but these issues are sidelined in favor of the good governance agenda subsumed under the personal charisma of the leader.

However, successful electoral management cannot institutionalize the functioning of political parties, whether in Congress or any other party. Already suffering from weak institutional structures, parties will be further de-institutionalised with electoral managers offering shortcuts on “How to win elections and influence people”.

In the case of Congress, it would not create the institutional leadership mechanism to guide the party or help reform party structure and empower state units highlighted in recent discussions of much-needed party reform. Basically, Congress needs to create its own narrative and the networks to spread it.

The importance of wresting power from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at this stage cannot be overstated and, understandably, opposition leaders are looking for contributions to increase their potential for victory, especially as they face a formidable political adversary with unlimited resources, media support and money. Power.

Nevertheless, this highly centralized model with the consultant working directly with the party leader and often making decisions, not only on campaigning but also on party organization and even ticket distribution, will undermine parties and democracy in the long run. term. Political parties must find ways to address the fundamental organizational and ideological deficits of opposition politics in order to safeguard substantial democracy. This process involves transcending identity politics to create a narrative of consequence beyond personalities, focusing on tackling communal hatred and neoliberal economics, to regain relevance, instead of relying on consultants policies.

Zoya Hasan is Emeritus Professor, Center for Policy Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Emeritus Professor, Council for Social Development, New Delhi.


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