Democracy's non-democratic parties

Dec 06, 2011, 07:17 IST | Sushant Singh
After the recently held municipal elections in Tamil Nadu, all 77 of AIADMK's newly elected councillors at the Madurai Municipal Corporation took the oath as... hold your breath: "I, so and so, do swear in the name of Amma kaaval deivam (Amma, the goddess who protects...)". Amma, of course being Tamil Nadu's CM and AIADMK supremo J  Jayalalitha. 

Not that DMK is any different. Some of the 12 DMK councillors took the oath in the name of DMK patriarch's son and Union minister M K Azhagiri. While this may be embarrassingly blatant sycophancy at display, the situation is no different for any other political party in India. Rather ironically, barring the communist parties to an extent, none of our political parties have inner-party democracy. 

In the name of Amma: After the recently held municipal elections in 
Tamil Nadu, AIADMK leaders took an oath in the name of Jayalalitha. 

Since Mrs Indira Gandhi split the Congress party, that party has been the virtual fiefdom of India's first political family, the Nehru-Gandhis. Lamentably, most of the leaders -- from Mulayam Singh to Parkash Singh Badal -- who opposed the Congress party for its dynastic behaviour have also embraced its ostensibly successful family-control model. In other cases where parties are not controlled by families, they are still private demesnes of leaders like Mayawati and Jayalalitha; or in the case of the BJP, determined by an external entity like the RSS.

What are the consequences of having oligarchic parties in our democracy? It is the root cause of the non-deliberative nature of our politics. We lament the poor quality of deliberation in parliament or lack of ideology in our parties. But it is directly owed to the fact that our leaders' rise within their parties does not include convincing their own party members of the cogency of their ideas. The battle within parties is not a battle for ideas but a race for patronage. At no level are there any open and fair contests, which could have acted as forums for protracted deliberation on policy issues. If the party platform is opened for serious contestation, it is more likely that party members will understand and articulate the positions taken by the party. 

The decision to allow export of Uranium to India was vigorously debated in Australia's Labour Party annual conference, before the delegates voted 206-185 in favour of the motion to change the party's policy. In contrast, the decision of the BJP to oppose the India-US nuclear deal or the recent proposal for FDI in retail was decided by the party High Command, without any debate or voting. 

Political parties are supposed to perform crucial educative functions in a democracy. The more open and democratic our parties are, the more likely that our leaders will be better politically educated. The current state of our parties is actually teaching our politicians arbitrariness, lack of deliberation and contempt for democracy. If our parliamentarians are used to the discipline and sanctity of democratic procedures within their own parties, they are less likely to stall the parliament when in opposition, or circumvent democratic processes when in government. The road to a functioning parliament goes through inner-party democracy.

The growth of smaller parties in the last two decades, and the consequent political instability, can be traced to the lack of inner party democracy, which forces talented individuals to seek greener pastures. The absence of formal mechanisms to challenge entrenched party hierarchies invariably leads to splits in parties; Janata Parivar being a prime example of this phenomenon. With no option to take over existing parties, newly mobilised caste groups also find it easier to start their own parties. While BSP evidently illustrates this development, eastern Uttar Pradesh has seen rise of many such smaller caste-based parties in the last decade.

Parties are mechanisms through which power is exercised in a democracy. Lack of inner-party democracy in our parties, more than any fundamental flaw in our constitution, lie at the root of most ills afflicting our democracy today.

Sushant K. Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian   National Interest Review.

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