In the contemporary world, party politics is seen as synonymous with democracy. It can be rightly said that the multi-party system has made India stand tall today as one of the most vibrant, diverse, and robust democracies in the world. Parties in India have ensured that the diverse aspirations of various groups get due concern in the policies of the government.
Paradoxically, the parties that are deemed agents of democracy in the country behave like autocracies when it comes to their internal functioning.
Indian politics is rife with examples where the dictatorial functioning of political parties has come under public scrutiny. In recent times, the debate has further intensified due to several political events that have alarmed the nation about the pitfalls of the lack of intra-party democracy.
Spilt in the ruling parties of several states, including Maharashtra, have increased recently. Besides, dynasty politics and the criminalization of politics, are two threats to Indian democracy that cannot be addressed until political parties democratise themselves.
What does intra-party democracy mean?
Intra-party democracy refers to the adoption of democratic principles in the functioning of the party. It includes periodic election of party leaders, transparency in ticket-distribution of candidates, lower level involvement in decision making, etc.
Most of the Indian political parties are far from democratic in their internal functioning They have become closed autocratic structures where the hegemony of an elite group (often belonging to/ loyal to a family) prevails. The elite leaders control every aspect of party functioning.
No internal election
Elections are rarely held within parties to elected the top leaders of the party, or to select a candidate for election. Leaders are rather picked. Since the leaders are not elected through elections, they hold no accountability to the party. As a result, most parties forget about the promises made by them after the election.
The Election Commission of India has no penalising power to make parties conduct internal elections. The Supreme Court, in the ‘Indian National Congress Vs Institute of Social Welfare & Others’ case (2002), held that the ECI cannot take punitive action against registered political parties for violating the principles of inner-party democracy.
Contrast this with the ousting of Boris Johnson as the leader of the Conservative Party in Britain. The party members voted him out as Johnson became an electoral and political liability. Such an ousting is not possible in India, given that no such internal elections are held.
In India, most parties are subservient to a family. The party-chief mostly happens to be a family member of his/her predecessor.
Patrick French, in his book ‘India: A Portrait’, has highlighted the extent of dynasty politics in India. All MPs below the age of 30 in the 15th Lok Sabha are from political families. Moreover, all 11 Congress MPs below the age of 35 years are hereditary MPs.
Interestingly, the crisis in Sri Lanka is a befitting example of how dynasty politics can lead to disastrous consequences. PM Modi too has expressed his concern about dynasty politics from the ramparts of the Red Fort.
Criminalisation of politics
This is the biggest fallout of the lack of democracy in parties in India. The number of members in legislative bodies with criminal backgrounds has increased.
Parties are able to field such candidates due to the opaque ticket-distribution process. Candidates with criminal backgrounds are offered tickets because they are seen as winnable.
Such candidates often have a strong financial background that helps them bear the expenses of their campaign as well as to fund the party treasury.
Several reports and commissions have time and again called for disbarring such candidates from contesting elections, including the Election Commission, the Law Commission, the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, the Second Administrative Reports Commission in India, etc.
To contain the menace of rampant defection, the 52nd Amendment Act (popularly known as the Anti-Defection law) was passed in the year 1985. However, the law did not have the intended effect.
- Parties have found ways to overpass the law (by fulfilling the 2/3rd requirement for a defection to be deemed as a merger).
- The law mandates legislators to follow the whip of the party head while voting on any bill. Further, as per the Supreme Court of India, even the conduct of an elected member may convey that he/she has left the party.
Such provisions have stifled inner-party dissent. So, unlike in the USA or UK, where elected members of a party can vote against their own party, legislators in India are mandated by law to obey whatever stand the party takes, lest they be disqualified.
Legislators are forced to give primacy to the will of the party over the will of the people who voted for him/her. Thus, people are relegated to the secondary position.
Lack of representative democracy
As parties have been reduced to election-winning machines, they field candidates based on their caste, religion, region, etc., further undermining representative democracy.
The exclusion of lower level party members from decision-making bodies prevents local issues from reaching the top echelons. Thus, in totality, the democratic credentials of a country suffer when parties behave dictatorially internally.
Is there any con to intra-party democracy?
One view holds that inner-party democracy at its full capacity may prove to be detrimental to Indian politics. Given the immense diversity of views prevalent in the Indian political discourse, reaching a decision within the party will become an impossible task. Internal conflict may make the party functioning inefficient.
How to attain democracy within parties?
The major force that has stalled the democratisation of political parties is the lack of political will. Top leaders are reluctant to let go of their privileges. Thus, institutionalisation of procedure never takes place.
To bring any substantive change, reforms should begin on three fronts—institutionalisation of procedures, initiatives from the top political leaders, and awareness among the general public.
The 170th Report of the Law Commission emphasised the importance of providing laws relating to the internal democracy within parties. Similarly, the National Commission for the Review of the Working of Constitution suggested the formulation of comprehensive legislation regarding the functioning of political parties.
Thus, the need of the hour is to come up with laws that ensure intra-party democracy without hurting its efficiency. Emboldening the ECI and reforming the Anti-defection law is the path ahead.
For instance, in February 2014, the Allahabad High Court issued a notice to the ECI seeking its reply on the internal elections held in political parties in response to a PIL. Such proactiveness is the need of the hour.
As the Law Commission has rightly pointed out, parties cannot behave dictatorially internally. Reforms that strike a balance between democratic ideals and the efficiency of political parties are necessary. The decisions of the party leaders may carry more weight, but party leaders must be elected through periodic, free and fair elections within the party.