The decline of political parties

The decline of political parties

The weeks leading up to the state elections in Maharashtra have seen several politicians switching sides because they did not get the lucrative party ticket. Even a party such as the Shiv Sena that has been known to use the threat of violence to hold its flock together has been hit by opportunism, though it is mistakenly termed dissidence in news reports. There is no dissent about core political values here, merely anger at the inability to grab party nominations.

These episodes can be seen through the lens of morality. However, the more interesting question is whether this Brownian motion is an early sign of the decline of the main brand vehicle in our noisy political markets: the political party.

The new brand seems to be the family name, a marketing strategy that till now had worked in the case of the Nehru-Gandhi family alone, but has now become successful down to every local election.

And the subsequent question worth asking is what the decline of the political party means for Indian democracy.

A benign explanation is that the decline in the power of political parties over their local satraps may not do too much damage to the fabric of Indian democracy. After all, we do see a similar (albeit superior) form of personalized politics in the US, where congressmen and senators often run for office and vote on legislation depending on their personal preferences rather than what the party high command tells them to do. Thus, a southern Democrat can often be indistinguishable from a mainstream Republican.

There is also a less benign explanation: Political power is splintering. Local strongmen representing local issues and interests are becoming more important than nationwide or even statewide issues. The fact that many of these local strongmen are members of powerful political dynasties could mean that what started as a liberal parliamentary system after Independence is now threatening to degenerate into a sort of neo-feudalism, especially at the sub-national level.

What lies in the future? It is hard to guess right now. But we hope that the decline in political parties leads to a US-style system, even as we fear that semi-feudalism seems to be the more likely outcome.

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