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In almost all liberal democracies, there are several organized groups representing the varied interests of its citizens. They interact among themselves and with the government, and augment and supplement the role and purposes of the political parties. They are part of the wider political process. While parties are the formal, open and recognized part of the political system, competing for power, the interest groups are informal, often secretive, concealed and conspiratorial and sometimes even unrecognized entities.
They’re even referred to as ‘unofficial governments’ and ‘invisible governments’.
Their objective is not to capture power like political parties but only to influence its decisions. They do not aspire to form government, but to effect a change in its policies and direction in a manner of their interest. Different interest groups project different interests. They seek to influence the policies and decisions of the government, sometime through open propaganda and direct approach, and sometime through disguised and clandestine means. To achieve this, they try to influence the government through all its three organs, legislature, executive and judiciary as well as the administrative procedure, rules and inclinations. Since, in liberal democracies, public policy is made through the process of reconciliation of varied demands of different sectors by bargaining, negotiations and compromise, these groups provide necessary inputs into this process.
An interest group represents the social, economic and political interest of the respective segment in the polity. These segments, for example, could be farmers, industrial workforce, miners, business and commerce, professional groups like medical practitioners, lawyers, servicemen, journalists, teachers, students and youth etc. Its members have common objectives and share certain similar values. They try to build public opinion in their favor and often canvas support of party leaders, legislators and the government officials while pursuing their objectives.
The work of the interest group is determined by the political culture of the country, that is, the approach, attitudes, beliefs and orientation of the citizens to political actions and towards the political system. To understand this, we might ask questions like: How and why the citizens act as they do? What are the social and political values they cherish? What is their basis of loyalty? What type of ‘group sentiments’ and ‘community identity’ they exhibit? What is their response and orientation to state and nation-building? There are broadly two types of political cultures – ‘participatory’, in which citizens take active role in the political process, and ‘subjective political cultures’, in which they play a passive role. India, by its traditional pattern of toleration of different groups and approaches, and in pursuance of its open society approach, allows all types of interest and pressure groups to work including non-democratic groups.
Every interest group, by its own nature and characteristic, employs different approaches, methods and tactics. Big business interests sometime make out as if what they’re seeking to do is in national interest. There’s a difference between the influence wielded by interest groups of rich people like business houses and interest groups of have-not sections like labor and wage-earners. Trade-unions are more aggressive, organize gheraos, bandh and dharnas; students and youth organizations tend to get violent. Business interests are pursued more discreetly and secretly. Big industrialists can have direct access to the powers-that-be. Farmers will hold big processions and rallies; service organizations establish useful contacts with bureaucracy, and caste and community organizations organize public demonstrations etc.
Money is used by interest groups for legal and illegal activities. It is required to promote public relations campaign, and for using the media to popularize the issue. Payments of bribes to vulnerable officials, ministers, political parties, legislators, etc., are not unknown methods of pressurizing.
Interest groups that work for larger human causes like peace, disarmament, environment, human rights, human development, friendship among countries, etc., pursue a different approach and method. They work by building enlightened public opinion, by promoting an all-party consensus, by enlisting the sympathy, support and participation of a cross-section of opinion leaders in a society, and appealing to human reason, good sense and compassion.
In one sense, interest groups provide a necessary link in the functioning of democracy, and in extending the concept of representative responsible government.
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