Princes, Zamindars, religious leaders are the examples of traditional elites. Even in contemporary times, when secularism has come to be universally accepted as a value, religious leaders continue to act as elite groups in almost all the societies, e.g. Buddhist monks are playing a key role in the ethnic crises of Sri Lanka.
In Islamic states, the religious leaders, ‘Mullah’s and Ayoatullas play an important role in the political process. The constitution and working of such religious groups in a theocratic state is similar to the organisation and working of traditional elites.
(2) Aristocratic or Noble Elites:
In almost all such societies as were in the past governed by Kings, aristocratic elites or royal elites continue to wield power and influence even after the transformation of monarchical regimes into democratic regimes. The House of Lords in England is an example of an aristocratic elite house within the democratic political system.
This is also true of France, Japan, Malaysia and many other such states. Even in our own country, the ex-maharajas, their sons and daughters, continue to be influential in Indian politics. The former maharajas do not wear ‘Crowns’ but they do try to sit on ‘power chairs’ and influence the corridors of power.
After the loss of their ‘kingdoms and privy purses’, most of them have willingly replenished these with social prestige carved through the support of the masses. As such, even in this age of democracy, aristocratic or nobility elites continue to be actively present in almost all the states.
(3) The New Elites:
The new elites or the modern elites are products of the industrial society and represents the forces of modernisation and development. The progress of industrial revolution has been accompanied by the rise of big business houses and industrial concerns. The owners of such concerns, by virtue of being very rich have started acting as elite groups capable of exercising a big influence, sometimes deterministic influence on the political process.
The transformation of the police state into a welfare state has resulted into a manifold increase in the functions of the state. It has come to be the biggest instrument for the promotion of socio-economic welfare through the formulation, adoption and implementation of welfare policies. This has tremendously increased the role and importance of public administration. The bureaucracy as the main instrument of public administration has come to be a very powerful group-an elite group, in all the states. Bureaucrapy is a new elite, a powerful elite at work in every state.
Likewise, with the rise of democratic spirit and systems new elites have come to wield and exercise power in every society. The leaders of the political parties are the modern or new elites. In fact, the technological revolution of the professional machine age as well as the developments in field of research has brought into existence such elites (the new elites) as Engineers, Doctors, Scientists and intellectuals.
All such elites play a vigorous and important role in the political systems. In Marxist and other totalitarian political systems, the top party leaders, the custodians of party ideology, have been working as new elites committed to secure modernisation and development in their social systems.
To conclude our discussion on the meaning and characteristics of the political elites, we have to say that the study of their functions and roles is crucial to all objectives, comprehensive and realistic studies of politics. In this age, in which ‘equality’ has come to be universally accepted as a prime value, ‘inequality’ continues to be accepted as a natural factor in all political systems.
All of us are involved in politics, but the degree and nature of involvement differs from person to person and place to place. Some of us are very actively involved in politics and are playing leadership roles, wielding power and materially influencing the making and implementation of authoritative values, and, therefore, constitute the political elites. No society is or can be or should be without political elites.
Political power is like a horse upon which only some can ride in the front and others have to accept the back seat. The front riders are the elites who hold the reins of power in every political system and their number is always less than the masses upon whom the power is used for promoting the welfare and development of the society as a whole. It is in this sense that every political system can be defined as oligarchic or aristocratic in actual performance. It is a reality of our times.
Elitist theory of Democracy and Pluralist Theory of Democracy both revolve around such logic. These, indeed, offer a realistic picture of the actual working of democratic political systems. That is why modern Political Science gives due importance to the study of political elites and their behaviour.
Lasswell is right when he observes: “By this time recognition is widespread that the world-inclusive study of power elites is indispensable to all serious inquiry into political processes. If inquiry is directed towards the past, to retrace the sequence of changes, the omission of the data is unthinkable. If the principle aim is to uncover key f actors in the arena of power, there is no avoiding the study of elites.
The inquirer, who faces the future, seeking to estimate the locus and speed of political encounters, must perceive the salience of elite data.” Lasswell’s words can be legitimately accepted as the last words on the importance of the study of political elites in comparative politics.