Success of competitive politics depends on middle classes, elites depends on mobilizing non-elites


By V Santhakumar*

South Africa, Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela have undergone an important political transition during the last 1-2 decades. The main character of this transition is the mobilization of non-elites and the installation of ruling regimes which respond to the needs of the poor and the lower-middle class. These mobilizations have taken place on the basis of different features in these countries. The race was the determining trait in South Africa whereas the indigenousness played that role in Bolivia. The `class’ was the axis of mobilisation in Brazil and Venezuela. However, the `class’ has played a role in South Africa and Bolivia too since blacks and indigenous people are at the lower tiers of the economic ladder there. Similarly nativity and race have played some role in Brazil and Venezuela too since blacks and indigenous people have supported the non-elite political mobilizations in these countries.

This political transition has been beneficial to the poor and the lower middle-class in all these countries. The share of public resources available to these sections has gone up substantially as part of this political change. There has been an enhanced interest in extending public services (including education and health-care) to the under-privileged groups in these new regimes. I could see a substantial increase in the spending on education and healthcare in Brazil under the government led by the Workers’ Party. In addition to this increase in the allocation of public resources to the poor and other marginalised groups, their self-respect has gone up remarkably well during this period.

However the impact of these regimes on the economic growth of these countries is debatable. Some of the policies which are pursued in a few (but not all) of these countries may have been inimical to economic growth. Certain economic outcomes like the inflation (especially in Venezuela) might have hurt the poor too. Partly because of the economic policies and partly because of the continuation of these parties/mobilisations in government for a number of terms, all these regimes are facing serious challenges currently. There are allegations of corruption against the regime in South Africa. The president has been removed through a constitutional process (but not electorally) in Brazil. There are serious apprehensions on the high-handedness and the way the constitutional process is used by the regime in Venezuela. Though the president in Bolivia is still popular, there are blethers about the corruption and the bossy behaviour of lower-level party workers. Observers are wondering about what may happen there in the near future.

Though the capturing of governments by the mobilisation of non-elites has been very useful, their monopoly in power could be harmful. Ideally, all these countries have to transition towards a healthy competitive politics. Such a competitive politics wherein (at least) one of the strong contenders is a party representing the poor and the lower middle-class is much more beneficial than the monopoly of any one party/coalition, even if that is the one which has started mobilising non-elites (click HERE to read). This is so since the monopoly in governance is as or more harmful than that in markets. It may encourage rulers to neglect the needs of certain sections of society and some of these could be poor. Even if the top leader is not corrupt and is concerned about the welfare of people at large, that may not be the case with the party functionaries at lower levels.  Moreover, the absence of a healthy competition may prevent governing regimes to acquire and internalise information on the real aspirations and frustrations of people. Hence it is ideal to have a competitive politics, which decreases the monopoly power of any one party/coalition, and where people can correct the ruling regime during elections and there is adequate information circulation on what people feel about a government.

However, there are serious barriers against the development of real competitive politics in all these countries. Given the mobilization of blacks that have led to the end of the apartheid in South Africa, African National Congress (ANC) is the main political expression of blacks there and they constitute the majority. Given that 80 percent of the population there are blacks, a competitive politics is possible only when there are two strong contenders or political parties representing them. Or a significant section of blacks and whites (and others like Indians) may have to come together under a party to combat the ANC. Given the fragmentation in Brazilian politics, and the continued support that the workers’ party enjoys among the poor and the lower-middle class, transition towards a competitive politics is rather difficult in Brazil. Though the former-president Lula is punished by a court in one of the corruption cases, he continues to enjoy popular approval there. Like the case of South Africa, a competitive politics in Bolivia is difficult without a political split within the indigenous population. President Maduro enjoys popular support in Venezuela despite all allegations of highhandedness.

A few tips from India

In this context, let us think about three states in India which have undergone a similar transition. These are Tamilnadu, West Bengal and Kerala. Tamilnadu witnessed the mobilization of non-elites under the Dravida Munnetta Kazhakam (DMK) (and here the mobilisation was against the upper-caste Brahmins, and also based on an ethnic identity). It came to power in 1967. This could have led to the monopoly power of DMK in the politics or governance in Tamilnadu. However, there was a split within DMK mainly due to the personal rivalry between two leaders and that had paved the way for the competitive politics in Tamilnadu. The assertion of non-elites through the DMK, and the competitive politics between these two splinter parties have been beneficial for the social development of the state.

The Communist Party of India and other left parties could mobilise peasants and the working class and come to power in the state of West Bengal in 1977. The opposition party – the previously ruling Indian National Congress – started receding then. This had facilitated the monopoly power of the left-front government, and hence it could last uninterruptedly for 34 years in the state. Though this government implemented land reforms benefitting peasants and supported workers (in their struggles against capitalists), the monopoly of this coalition in governance made it very unpopular towards the end. A populist leader could come to power by throwing out the left-front government only in 2011.  The state is yet to witness the grounding of a strong competitive politics. The absence of such a politics could be one of the reasons for the not-so-desirable human development of the population there (say, compared to that in Tamilnadu or Kerala).

Kerala was the first state in India to have a non-elite mobilization and that was led by the Communist Party of India. It came to power through electoral politics in 1957. That was an important development in the socio-political transformation of Kerala. However the more important feature was that the state could move towards a competitive politics within a few years. The communist party could not establish monopoly in governance there. From 1960s onwards, people vote out the ruling coalition in almost every election (barring in one or two).

The competition of the two coalitions in Kerala enabled the implementation of policies that enhanced the distribution of public resources to people at large. The competition encouraged the ruling regimes to respond to the needs of the majority. This has happened even when such `competition’ was not so desirable for pursuing policies aimed at economic growth or for the disciplining of public expenditure. One may not see much difference between these two coalitions in this regard. Their intense competition in pursuing popular policies has contributed substantially to the improvement of human development indicators in Kerala.

One factor that has enabled the competitive politics in Kerala is the relatively short distance between the support-base of the two competing parties/coalitions. Though one of them represents predominantly the poor and the lower middle-class, and the other the middle and upper-middle class, the distance (in terms of income/wealth) between these two support-bases is not that substantial. Hence each of the competing coalitions can try to get additional support from the voter-base of its opponent during the election. This may be due to the relatively lesser inequality in terms of the land-size and other assets between elites and non-elites in Kerala. This may also indicate the underlying barrier against the emergence of a competitive politics in these four countries mentioned here. The `distance’ (on multiple dimensions) between elites and non-elites could be substantial there.

If competitive politics is to emerge in these countries, sections of elites and upper- and middle class have to find a common cause with sections of those people who are currently supporting the political mobilisations of non-elites.

* Professor, Azim Premji University, Bangaluru. Blog:


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