Political Parties: Features, Functions & Role

Introduction

Throughout history, the prime objective of every state has been to safeguard its national interest i.e., improve the quality of life of its citizens. Quality of life, in turn, has three dimensions-social, economic and political. Thus, the provision of economic goods and services such as food, shelter, health, education, etc at affordable prices to the maximum num, ber of people is its economic dimension. Political empowerment through holding fair/free elections, maintaining law and order, safeguarding them from external aggression/ terrorism, ensuring rule of law, access to justice, etc are its political dimension. Cultural enhancement, social harmony, religious freedom, fundamental rights, etc are its social dimension.

To achieve the objectives of its national interest, the state creates or facilitates the creation of several institutions such as parliament, armed forces, bureaucracy, media, etc. One such institution necessary for the realisation of the national interest in a democratic polity is that of political parties.

Features of Political Parties

A political party consists of a group of like-minded people who share a common goal, aims, and objectives and work together as a unit to influence the general public, and contest elections to gain control over the government. Political parties have certain peculiar features which distinguish them from other forms of groupings in the country. These are as follows

  1. Formal Organisation: A political party is a formal organisation, that has a hierarchical structure and a distinct working culture of its own. Invariably having an agenda(manifesto)and a symbol, they are registered with the election authority of the country for contesting the elections.
  2. Noble Cause: Political parties are established and work for a noble cause; it cannot be a gang of looters and robbers
  3. Unanimity of Views: While there may be intra-party differences of opinion on any issue, their manifesto reflects unanimity of the views of the party members by the majority
  4. Ultimate Aim: Irrespective of the stated aims and objectives for the formation of a political party, the ultimate aim of any political party is to gain power through legal means to implement the manifesto reflecting the wishes of its electorate.
  5. Standard Approach: Despite their differences in terms of composition and manifestos, the approach of every party is the same. They compete with one another to influence public opinions with their philosophies, ideas, and objectives. The winning party runs the government, and the opposition keeps a close watch on the functioning of the government, hoping to win the next election based on the bad performance of the incumbent government and their promise to the public of being a better alternative.

Differences in Parties

Political Parties can be distinguished based on three features namely composition of members, leadership style, and agenda. Some parties have open membership irrespective of class, creed, or religion and are truly mass-based while some parties admit, by design or by default, people belonging to certain areas, religious/sectarian affiliations, etc. Similarly, some parties are personalized, formed around one charming leader, and are often dynastic. On the other hand, some parties have bureaucratized, and are based on merit. Lastly, parties can be identified by the agenda they have-universalistic or particularistic. Universalistic parties focus on problems that are not confined to a limited number of issues, geography, or demographics. On the other hand, particularistic parties focus on a limited number of issues unique to a particular group or area of the country.

Role and Importance of Political Parties

The need for and importance of political parties for the successful functioning of a democratic polity cannot be overemphasised. Indispensable for the working of modern democracies, some of the ways political parties perform their role in distinct but interrelated capacities; are as follows

1. Political Socialisation

Political socialisation is the process of educating the masses about the rules of the political game, their constitutional rights as well as the responsibilities under the law of the land. Besides the media, print, electronic and social, political parties are the most effective means of educating the public on various issues affecting their lives. Parties in any system of government educate, formulate and organize public opinion.

They also help in the growth of the level of political consciousness of common citizens, who otherwise have no time to peruse and study issues of the state. The political parties in their effort to come closer to the people organize public rallies, meetings, and press conferences on important issues and make their views clear. The common people are made aware of the economic, social, and political condition of the country and have an opportunity to analyze the pros and cons of various important issues.

This process leads to organizing and formulating a public opinion on important issues. The parties behave responsibly in states where the people, in general, are well educated and politically conscious. This is evident from the working of political parties in western countries, where the political culture is more easily discernible than the non-European countries.

2. Political Recruitment

Except for a military coup or a revolution, all the roads leading to the corridors of power pass through political parties. Thus anyone interested to become the head of the government or a member of the ruling elite of democracy in any capacity must pass through the gate of a political party. The essential function of any party is to recruit men of integrity, letters, action, and leadership to its fold as members and prepare them for election in the future.

They provide the channel for those aspiring to reach the higher echelons of power can Because it is these members of the party who propagate the party ideologies, discuss the burning issues, and hold meetings and press conferences to mobilize public support. It is these leaders again who contest in the election and form government if elected to power. Such leaders being drawn from public life are expected to understand the expectations of the common people and formulate public policies accordingly. Parties always get popularity and recognition through their leaders only.

3. Change Agent

Every political party is the microcosm of its constituency reflecting the opinions and aspirations of the segment of the population it represents and doing its best to reach the corridors of power. Once in power, it ensures that these aspirations are fulfilled as per law without adversely affecting the rights of others, Political parties in a country are one of the most important change agents because of their outreach to multiple sections of society and the charismatic appeal of their leaders. They can mold the attitudes and behaviours of the general public by presenting plans of action in their respective manifestos which could improve the service delivery of the various governmental institutions and thus improve the quality of life of the citizens

4. Pillar of Stability

However, they are also the anchor of stability in the sense that they do not let others rock the very boat they are riding. The political parties not only unite, simplify and stabilize the political process of the country but also play a great role in maintaining stability by performing their respective roles in the legislature. The majority party forms the government and the other small parties are in the opposition.

5. Melting Pot

The destabilizing forces of caste, creed, ethnicity, regionalism, etc are tackled by political parties by the political process known as interest aggregation. They accommodate the diverse demands of the various interest groups of the party by incorporating them in their respective manifestos after appropriate amendments through compromises. This process of interest aggregation helps to pacify the disintegrating forces and fortify cohesion.

6. Facilitator

They make the working of parliamentary government possible. In the absence of organized political parties, one just cannot think of the working of representative government. A parliament consists of the representatives of the people. The political parties organize these representatives on party lines. The electorate chooses their representatives based on their party affiliation. The party which gets the most votes forms the government and runs the state and the other parties in the legislature constitute the opposition and try to find fault with the government, thus making it more responsible. In the absence of political parties, the elected representatives may work at cross purposes just making the formation of a government or opposition an impossibility.

7. Watchdog

The party in power has to conduct itself very responsibly. The opposition party keeps a close eye on the working of the ruling party. The opposition does not merely criticize the government; it also provides an alternative program and alternative government in the eventuality of any crisis in the government. As such it contributes to the stability of the government. Hence, healthy opposition is very important for the success of democracy.

Functions of Political Parties

Under the above-mentioned three roles, political parties perform the following five functions namely

1. Interest Articulation

Interest articulation refers to the process whereby demands of the various interest groups in society are formulated and expressed in the form of desired plan of action. Normally such desired plans of actions highlighting the demands of the various segments of society, are initiated by the civil society organisations like chambers of commerce, trade unions, welfare organisations, etc but ultimately have to route through a political party for their processing and onward transmission.

2. Interest Aggregation

Interest aggregation refers to sorting out these diverse and often conflicting demands of various interest groups and making compromises. Once received, political parties assess these demands, prioritise them according to their urgency and importance and turn them into viable policy options to be presented to the public representatives

3. Rule Making/policy formulation

Policy formulation and its ultimate conversion into the legal framework is the job of the elected representatives or those given authority by them. Parliament is the ultimate authority of public policy formulation. Each political party fights the election to achieve the objectives incorporated in its political manifesto. Soon after the election the majority party forming the government seeks to formulate its policies of administration based on promises made in the election manifesto. Political parties help their elected representatives to arrive at an appropriate policy matrix or legal framework by pointing out the pros and cons of various policy options.

4. Rule Application/Service Delivery

How the laws and rules are implemented, and services are provided to the general public is the responsibility of the bureaucracy. Although political parties are not directly involved in this function, the governments invariably constitute governing boards to ensure the smooth implementation of the policies formulated and effective service delivery. Needless to say, these boards are heavily dominated by the members of the ruling and/or even opposition political parties

5. Rule Adjudication

It relates to the conflict resolution and redressal of grievances by courts, tribunals, commissions, etc. Here again, political parties become involved when their members are nominated by the government to serve on various commissions and boards constituted for hearing public complaints and redressing their grievances

6. Monitoring and Feedback

While Policy formulation by the public representatives is one side of the triangle, its implementation by the administration is the second. However, its third dimension, monitoring, and feedback are as crucial as the above two. It relates to the accountability function of the system-how various institutions are performing their functions-basically a watchdog function performed by several institutions including political parties

Conclusion

Political parties play an extremely crucial role in achieving the basic objective of every state namely improving the quality of life of its citizens. Besides educating the masses about the rules of the political game, their constitutional rights as well as the responsibilities under the law of the land, they help create political awareness and social mobilisation for welfare in the country. We cannot expect effective public policies without the active participation of political parties in almost every stage of policy formulation. They are not only the watchdog of national interest but also provide the channels for the recruitment of political leadership in the country

How effectively and efficiently this institution of political parties depends upon several factors such as its leadership, organisational capabilities of its management cadres, and most importantly the appeal of its ideology to mobilise the public in general and the electorate in particular. And, all this is possible only if there is freedom of association and expression in the country.

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