The non-party domain in contemporary politics

Freedom of association is a fundamental right guaranteed to every citizen inhabiting a democracy. It simply implies like-minded individuals walking towards a common target or achievement of a collective goal are legally allowed to band together and let themselves be heard by the very representatives they elect or the formulators that formulate policies they agreed upon to follow. The presence of such associations marks the working of a healthy democratic society for the experts viewed that the presence of diverse groups counterchecked one another interests. Just for instance, the employers’ interests are likely to be counterbalanced by the trade unions. The term non-party domain is “a purely descriptive term, and could be used to include anything and every political expression that is outside the formal structure of party-politics, including what political science of an earlier era would have called interest groups, pressure groups and lobbies.”

From the term non-party one can very easily deduce that association of such an order is in its entirety out of the ‘political party’ framework. However, it would be wrong to say that associations of such an order are out of the political framework. They are very much a part of the political society, but they are at bays length when it comes to contesting in democratic elections. They refer to organizations or movements that are often hailed as “grass roots movements”, “new social movements” or simply “social movements”, “social-action groups” and “movement groups”. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to be a little old school and instead of the term ‘non-party’ I’ll be using the terms coined by those old political scientists. I would like to start by defining and distinguishing them.

An interest group is defined “as a group of individuals who are linked by particular bonds of concern or advantage and who have some awareness of these bonds.” Although individuals within a liberal democracy possess fundamental rights, permitting them to lobby parliamentarians and governments on varied pertinent issues, yet, a collective approach has always been looked up at. On this regard, the distinction between pressure groups and interest groups is important. All pressure groups are interest groups, but all interest groups are not pressure groups. Pressure groups are “social aggregates with some level of cohesion and shared aims influencing the political decision making process”. These groups are interest groups inside the political domain. They try to influence the government from inside; they may succeed in influencing or they may not. Their effectiveness determines their success. Pressure groups can and have transformed themselves, time and again, into political parties in order to gain representation in the assembly. All Assam Students Union, primarily an interest group, developed into a political party during the six-year long Assam Agitation.

Interest articulation heavily depends on the structures which performs the function.  First, we have the groups with associational nature. These are organized specialized groups striving to pursue limited goals. They act through regular and legal channels and are mostly of regional character, always working at an informal and intermittent level. The National Farmers Union in UK, the National Rifle’s Association in US and the India National Trade Union Congress or any NGOs are apt examples. Second, the Non-Associational groups, involving the kinship and lineage band, including regional, ethnic and class groups, articulate their interests essentially through individuals cliques, family, religious heads and the like. They lack any organised procedure. The Welsh Language Society in Wales which campaigns for the usage of Welsh language by the Welsh people in every aspect of life is one such example. Third, the Institutional groups which are officially organised and is made up of personnel who are professionally employed. They are part of the government machinery and raise their demands through constitutional means like the institutional military-industrial complex of the United States articulating interests relating to defence industry. Last, the Anomic group, somewhat akin to individual self representation through spontaneous penetrations into the political system with the use of unconventional or violent means such as riots, demonstrations and assassinations. APHC an alliance raising the cause of Kashmiri separatism in India, and the 1988 uprising in Burma on August 8 against the economic mismanagement and the failure of the Burmese way to Socialism are important examples.

With an expansion of executive power, area of responsibility also follows close. The Civil Society Organization (CSO), mostly non-partisan, indirect, invisible and intermittent in its outlook yet constitutes a significant place in the administrative system when it comes to influencing the government. They constitute the anonymous empires, our unofficial government. In America, pressure groups go as far as influencing the judiciary by using the amicus curiae method. Here, the selection of judges is done on the basis of an active political background. Moreover, test cases and public campaigns are regularly undertaken to influence particular decisions.

However, the efficiency of the interest groups in the policy making process depends extensively on the position from which they act, that is, whether they act from within the government or outside the government body. Insider pressure groups are consulted by governments, regularly. Therefore, level of influence remains significantly high. The Confindustria, in Italy is the absolute example in this regard. The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry is one of the kinds. They offer guarantee to the payment of duties and taxes to custom authorities, both domestic and foreign, for temporary moving of equipments across border for upholding business promotion and networking. Outsider groups, on the contrary stay away from governmental associations or interference. The two bodies rarely share their objectives and indulge the other. They mostly act as regular check on the governing body. Increasing public awareness through various forms of direct actions is their prime motive. They often tap the media, launch publicity campaigns, and issue ‘press releases’ for this purpose. India against Corruption led by Anna Hazare is a prominent example.

Pressure groups bridge the gap between the governing and the governed, especially in between elections, when the former is least active. They strive maintain the commitment of the former to the latter. Moreover, pressure groups attempt to educate people, and make them aware on several pertinent issues such as the League against Cruel Sports. They voice the views of all sections of the community, mostly those who are not likely to be heard. SHELTER, in Britain represents the interests of homeless people, disregarded by mainstream political parties. A lot of groups contain experts in varied fields and thus succeed in providing the government with relevant information. For example the British Medical Association advised the government on the ill-effects of passive smoking and this led to the smoking ban in England at all public places. These pressure groups emphatically raise sensitive issues which political parties hesitate to take up. The Howard League for Penal Reform, campaigns for better conditions and rights for prisoners. Above all these non-party bodies ensure and promote political participation for all irrespective of one’s affiliation to a particular political party.

However, large pressure groups seeking to uphold themselves continuously in the political society need financing on a regular basis. Along with knowledge, they also require competent leaders to deal with ministers and bureaucrats. Moreover, their presence and power will depend upon their ability to form links and make collaborations. Besides discrepancies within the groups’ own internal organization, its efficiency may be disrupted for several other determinants as well. Since the field of operation is always wide and diverse, in order to maximise influence often objectives are likely to be expressed in the national-interest line. For instance, business groups may claim that a trade union strike disrupts the country’s valuable export drive in the guise of safeguarding their interests as profit-earners. Moreover, groups that are wealthy and are in a strong strategic position, tend to have more influence regardless of the merits of their cause. Often success is brought by wealthy and powerful groups who only represent a minority of people, when more worthy groups representing large numbers of people like the homeless have little or no influence. The web of political values and attitudes are also important in proving how effective the pressure groups are e.g. in Britain, a pressure group promoting animal welfare will have far more acceptance than a pressure group promoting euthanasia. These factors play a great role in understanding how effective a pressure group is in a particular country. Moreover, overlapping membership also deters pressure group effectiveness. Mostly the attitude groups of the Anglo-American pressure group politics are apt examples. They are more in number, but when it comes to ideological orientation, there is hardly a good appearance.

The essence of group theory is the decision-making process. However, centralised formulation of public policy may appear, in actuality it is always a decentralised process of bargaining. It is rightly said, ‘as pressure groups daunt, political parties doom’. Despite a few flaws, pressure group, do influence and dominate modern politics, and groups with an insider status definitely possess an upper hand than those with an outsider status.

By: Senjuty Bhowmik, Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University.


  • democracy-asia.org
  • Comparative Politics: A Developmental Approach by Gabriel Almond and G. Bingham Powell
  • Modern Politics and Government by Alan Ball
  • Pressure Groups Revision Pack (PDF)
  • Pressure Groups: A Series of Document (Article)

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