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Chhibber and Kollman: Party aggregation and the number of parties in India and the United States

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Chhibber and Kollman. 1998. Party aggregation and the number of parties in India and the United States. APSR 92 (2): 329-342.

In Brief

National politics in India appears to counter the social-cleavage theory of parties. The dominant Congress party garners support across the numerous cleavages apparent in Indian society. However, if the analysis is focused on state and local politics, the social-cleavage theory is upheld. Mobilized bases within states are sharply divided along numerous cleavages, although the salient ones are different from region to region. The Congress party unites these groups as an "independence movement" focal point while opposition parties are stymied by the variety of salient cleavages across regions.

"The social cleavage theory of party systems has provided a major framework for the study of Western party systems. It has been quite unimportant in studying other party systems, especially those of developing countries, where comparative development, and not mass electoral politics, has been the focus of study. This article reports the results of an attempt to bridge these traditions by analysing popular support for the Congress Party of India in terms of the expectations of the social cleavage theory of parties. This analysis illustrates the degree to which Indian partisanship conforms to the expectations of the theory. More importantly, this social cleavage theory analysis offers some new perspectives on (1) the inability of the Indian political system to develop national parties other than the Congress and (2) the 'disaggregation' of the Congress party."

Place in Literature

See Cox's review (1999). He cites this as one of only two studies of "linkage" (i.e. why local parties link to form a national party). In his reading of this article, it is India's centralized government (X) that makes linkage (Y) attractive.

Main Argument

The Puzzle

Given the numerous cleavages within Indian society (by religion, ethnicity, language, caste, class, etc), it is counterintuitive that they are not manifest in national politics. The Congress party routinely garners support from a large share of the electorate and is more or less equally supported by the various groups within society. This weak link between social cleavages and party support belies the traditional social cleavage theory of party systems.

India-Specific Explanations:

  1. the Congress developed its support in the independence movement and has become a heterogenous, catch-all, centrist party that garners support from Indians of all stripes. As such it "reflects the status and legitimacy of the state, itself."
  2. the Congress's dominance magnifies the leadership problems within the opposition parties. Either opposition leaders are seen as lacking the qualifications for national office or are suspected of leading a party merely for personal gain.

Chhibber and Petrocik seek to show that both of these theories, which invoke India-unique claims, can be overshadowed by the social cleavages theory if the correct level of the political system is studied.

Social-Cleavages Resurrected:

Chhibber and Petrocik find that "community by community (and to a lesser extent State by State), the electoral support of the Congress is quite homogenous." [i.e. within each community, the party is defined by social cleavages.] As such, Congress is a coalition of state and local parties that, while internally homogenous, differ widely with the other state and local parties within the coalition. They find that social cleavages are salient at the local level, and that groups and parties are geographically concentrated. Thus, clear cleavages at the local level would get washed out in the aggregate data of national electoral support. [i.e. it looks like the Congress doesn't represent specific cleavages when you take a national view.] In other words "inter-state differences in the nature of cleavages...created inter-state differences in the social group constituency of the same party." Close examination of vote distributions at polling booths within states shows "that sociologically similar respondents voted virtually unanimously for a party. At the level at which social conflicts are the most salient, they are, it is clear, quite fully mobilized by the parties."

Why do Groups Join the Congress Party?

Congress originally exploited its symbolic and organizational linkages to the independence movement. Since Congress subsumes the full range of social cleavages, there is also no national position for opposition parties to oppose. In addition, national opposition parties tend to be geographically specific, making India-wide appeals difficult. In addition, "the primary purpose of the national Congress is the formation of the national government. The national executive's political power reflects his or her control of the institutions of the national government. Local political figures are secure and influential by virture of their command of the divisions and conflicts within their constituencies" In conclusion, "the Congress can continue to win elections as long as the local political elite mobilizes votes for the national executive and the national executive, in turn, meets the political needs of the local figures, for example by dispensing patronage."