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Is noise the only way to get noticed?

Why political parties must give local politicians a bigger stake in larger issues of the day.

March 11, 2017 12:02 am | Updated 02:36 am IST

"Over the past few years, India has witnessed too many discomforting actions and events on behalf of its political class."

"Over the past few years, India has witnessed too many discomforting actions and events on behalf of its political class."

Fringe elements affiliated with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been in the news ever since the party came to power. Activists who pretend to be associated with the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh too have had their day in the news.

There are two widely held explanations for such activism. First, the “fringe” is encouraged by the party as a strategy to appeal to more extreme elements within the party and to polarise politics. Second, and more specific to the right wing, some believe that these individuals’ provocative actions and remarks are indicative of the government’s tacit support for Hindutva principles. Since the party can always use plausible deniability to distance itself from the actions of the fringe elements, both explanations are plausible.

There are two other reasons. The first, we believe, is that this behaviour is symptomatic of the tendency of lower-level politicians and often even bureaucrats to indulge in actions that would help them win favour among their political superiors. Take the case of some ABVP leaders who have been involved in pushing a virulent nationalist agenda. Their actions have served to embarrass the BJP and the Central government.

There are also local politicians who have misperceived favourable responses or miscalculated the impacts of their actions. Rabble-rousers, from Yogi Adityanath to Sakshi Maharaj, have consistently undermined the government’s development agenda and even embarrassed the government by making inflammatory remarks centred on religion. In our view, this results from a systemic problem with our politics — that career advancement of individuals in political parties and the bureaucracy is determined largely by random criteria, often on the whims of their political masters.

Lack of democracy

In India, unless one hails from a well-established political dynasty or has a great amount of financial resources, he or she would find it extremely difficult to move up the political ladder. Research by Rajkamal Singh and Rahul Verma shows that almost two-thirds of Assembly constituencies in Uttar Pradesh in the 2017 election were contested by families that have long been a part of electoral politics. There is a complete absence of inner-party democracy at the local level. Thus, lower-level politicians have two options to increase the likelihood of their political advancement. One is a ‘push’ strategy, by consistently doing good work on the ground and hoping that the party recognises their work. However the randomness in criteria for political advancement, attributable in large part to the absence of party democracy and a deeply entrenched system of dynastic politics, means this strategy is unlikely to work very well. The fact that parties do not have well-established party organisations at the local level elevates the randomness of advancement within their ranks.

An easier way still is to try and win favour directly with their political masters, who rarely follow well-established processes to determine political promotions. This strategy would rest on the assumption that political bosses, if impressed with the individuals, would ‘pull’ them up through the party ranks. However, since most parties in India are highly centralised, access to the party high command is extremely restricted. In order for them to get noticed by those in higher ranks, they need to create some sort of noise or disturbance, and this often finds expression in the form of coercion and crime.

No sense of involvement

Second, current social science research shows that an individual’s sense of responsibility is linked to the organisational characteristics within which they work. The hierarchical nature of Indian parties means this lower rung simply does not feel the same level of responsibility towards the larger goal set by the party. This is buttressed by the failure of parties to cultivate a sense of ownership for local politicians in the larger issues facing the nation. This leaves individuals at the local level with virtually no sense of responsibility towards many of the policy decisions a government takes and they are left to interpret the party’s core concerns the way they wish.

In order to deal with this effectively, one option for political parties would be to come down on these individuals with a heavy hand. This is difficult in a democracy. A better and more sustainable option is to reduce the randomness in political advancement at the local level. This can be done by introducing reforms that strengthen inner-party democracy during selection of candidates for different roles. Such reforms are bound to face resistance from a system very set in its ways, and require bold leadership to push through. An instance was when Rahul Gandhi introduced primary-style elections in a few constituencies before the 2014 election.

Over the past few years, India has witnessed too many discomforting actions and events on behalf of its political class. It is imperative that political parties take steps to alter the incentive structure of the system and give local politicians a larger stake in larger issues of the day.

Pradeep Chhibber teaches Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. Harsh Shah is an alumnus of the University of California, Berkeley. The views expressed are personal .

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