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HomeOpinionsPolitical parties are not like companies

Political parties are not like companies

A supporter of the BJP celebrates the party’s victory in the Gujarat Assembly elections.

A supporter of the BJP celebrates the party’s victory in the Gujarat Assembly elections.
| Photo Credit: REUTERS

A popular trope among political commentators, especially in the aftermath of important elections, is that political parties are like corporations and their leaders like CEOs. The analogy is made to press home the point that just as CEOs are held accountable for a bad quarter, so should the leaders of political parties for poor election results. This analogy is misleading and leads to distorted ideas of how political parties function. This is especially problematic in India because unlike, say, in the U.S., there is little space for the politics of negotiation and compromise outside of political parties. Therefore, the key to understanding Indian politics is understanding how political parties function.


A key difference between a political party and a company is that parties have claimants and volunteers while a company has employees. This difference has an impact on all aspects of decision-making and operations of the two entities. The purpose of a political party is to capture state power in service of some stated social agenda. To legitimise this aspiration, the party itself must be seen to be as a microcosm of society, with its organisation necessarily populated by individuals in a volunteer capacity as opposed to paid employees. Thus, while all parties have some paid employees, positions which enable the people holding them to exercise political judgment and have executive authority, such as area presidents and in-charges, are honorary ones. Despite this, there are multiple claimants for every position commensurate with associated prestige and power.

On the other hand, most private companies operate in a narrowly defined and apolitical space selling goods and services. Politics — in the sense which conveys value judgment about the trajectory of society itself and its consequent trade-offs — is not part of a corporation’s role. Even if there is an element of political judgment in the functioning of the corporation, it is exercised at the top as opposed to individual employees having to exercise political judgment at their level. Thus, a corporation is entirely staffed by paid employees performing well-defined, non-overlapping roles with the reasonable expectation that their professional skills will suffice for their work.

With the above context, it is evident that the analogy of a political party as a company makes little sense. A political party must manage trade-offs between multiple conflicting interests, generate consensus, and then mobilise the electorate around its chosen narrative. This is a more nebulous space than one in which pre-defined goods and services are exchanged for profit. Moreover, multiple claimants for every position inevitably queer the pitch for the party’s operations. Given the public nature of political parties, it is neither advisable nor possible to exclude claimants from participation in the organisation’s functioning though the influence of dissidents is often curtailed. Since political parties are in the business of opinion-making, internal dissonance and conflict of interest have a direct bearing on a party’s ability to perform, especially in a competitive electoral landscape. Examples include contradictory statements made by party functionaries during important campaigns, sabotage and leaks, rebel candidates, or sheer inactivity. When such internal factionalism comes out in the public, it has a cascading effect on all aspects of the party’s operations from outreach to fundraising.

It may be suggested at this point that a political party could sort out these issues through ‘discipline’. However, unlike employees, political functionaries cannot be ‘fired’, especially since many may not have a post to begin with. This is because political functionaries don’t just perform a role but also serve as representatives of some or other interests. The ability to enforce discipline in a political party is thus directly related to the ability of the leadership to consolidate power at the top. This points to a fundamental difference between a political party and a corporation: in a political party, power is more informal and dynamic than in a corporation. Hence, corporate notions of hierarchy, compartmentalisation, professionalisation, discipline and accountability do not translate well within a political setting. In a corporation, a promoter can outsource management to a ‘professional’ without worrying about losing control as long as s/he controls majority shares. However, in a political party, power once delegated can be lost if the representative interests realign.

Recent trends

Given these vagaries in the functioning of political parties, there are indeed discernible trends towards ‘corporatisation’ and ‘professionalisation’ of parties. Political parties are starting to prune political judgment from various positions, such as in the case of spokespersons where their articulation of the party stand is completely divorced from actual decision-making authority. Similarly, the anti-defection bill divests political discretion from elected representatives by constraining them to the whip and vesting all decision-making in the party leadership. Chief Ministers using the bureaucracy to bypass Ministers and the use of political consultants to bypass the party organisation are other examples of professionalisation of political parties. However, instead of improving efficiency, this has resulted in further degradation of overall public purpose. Pruning political discretion from positions has made individuals in those positions expendable like employees and less capable of negotiating the party’s internal power structures. The ‘professionalisation’ of politics has also facilitated rampant party hopping by political functionaries in the manner of employees flitting across companies. This reduces the overall credibility of the political space.

Ultimately, politics is a value-driven enterprise. We should seek competence and accountability from political functionaries, but the way forward is not through the corporatisation of our parties.

Ruchi Gupta is the Executive Director of the Future of India Foundation. Twitter: @guptar

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