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Whither Political Parties: WANTED VIGILANT WATCHDOGS, By Dr.S.Saraswathi, 4 May, 2017 Print E-mail

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New Delhi, 4 May, 2017

Whither Political Parties


By Dr.S.Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


The nation was shocked to hear of attempts to bribe the Election Commission (EC) by a faction of the AIADMK to get the Party’s symbol of “two leaves” frozen by the Constitutional body. The dispute over it is presently before the Commission.  

Amidst this, Kejriwal’s AAP blamed the Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) for its debacle in Delhi’s municipal and Punjab Assembly elections, Mulayam’s Samajwadi raised the bogey of communal politics to hide its performance deficiencies in the UP Assembly election.  As for the Congress despite emerging as the largest single party in the Goa and Manipur Assemblies it failed to muster support for forming the Governments and blamed the BJP for reversing the poll verdict.

Be it the AIADMK, AAP, Samajwadi or Congress – their declining phase   is visible, but by itself this does not matter to democracy.  Changes in the fortunes of Parties reflect the health of India’s Party system and need not be grudged.  None of these Parties is willing to look inwards and identify its own weaknesses and take remedial actions.                                                                                                                                                  

The degeneration is not only in the electoral or Parliamentary performance of Parties, but is reflected in the oral and written communications of their leaders and tone of delivery. The way Parties handle their tasks and criticize one another speaks volumes on the prevailing political culture.  Well groomed democratic behavior is a rare quality in inter-Party relationship. 

A strong conviction that there are factors more important than ideologies, policies and performance to win elections has gained ground. The despicable attitude of cultivating faith in short cuts and crooked methods that many adopt for personal and professional success has invaded the political arena. Few believe in value-based politics and fewer of those who believe succeed in a political career. 

In India, enrolment in Parties is not common among citizens and Party affiliations in elections depend on people’s perception of Parties and candidates which change frequently. Grassroots workers recruited by them mostly remain employees earning small benefits as wages and allowances.

Besides, leaders of Parties have not always emerged through a democratic elections process. Some Parties are democratic in appearance but oligarchic in organization and functioning. In most of them, political offices are distributed among the near and dear of leaders, blatantly ignoring senior and capable members. 

In fact, tough leaders with strong local support are bypassed by some national and State Parties keen on imposing centralized control firmly. A number of small State and district level Parties are centred around a local group leader. 

Importantly, starting and promoting a political outfit is also used as a means of evading taxes and getting privileges to conceal income since Parties enjoy many exemptions from income tax. Consequently, there is proliferation of personality-centred Parties who invent issues to justify their existence and play with popular emotions to divide voters politically, but are not keen on winning elections.

Knowledgeable persons mostly prefer to remain outside politics offering their expertise whenever required.  But Party politics does not spare them and tends to associate them with specific Parties.   Even entertainment industry artistes are subject to this treatment.

Surprisingly, decline in Party affiliation is widespread in Europe and Latin America also. A poll survey recently pointed out that 42 per cent of Americans identified themselves as independents in political affiliation.  The percentage must be more in India which is underscored in the “anti-incumbency” phenomenon motivating voters. In most democracies, there is no direct Constitutional provision for establishing or regulating Parties. 

However, there are two glaring exceptions.  The Constitution of the Fifth French Republic (1958) prescribed that the French National Assembly could make no law curtailing the rights and activities of Parties thus recognizing their Constitutional status.  The   basic law of the Federal Government of Germany (1949 and amended in 1990) gave legitimacy to Parties, but made it difficult for minorities and splinter groups to form outfits. 

Interestingly, there is no mention of Parties in the Indian Constitution.    They are recognized later in the Tenth Schedule pertaining to defections added in 1985.   Parties owe their existence to the recognition given by the Election Commission.   

Our federal polity and Panchayati Raj with two or three tiers of elected bodies, municipal councils and corporations have expanded the responsibilities of Parties.  Even village panchayats, supposed to be outside Party politics, are not so in reality.

Therefore, what happens within Parties and how they behave in public add and subtract to the democratic content of our democracy whereby our   democratic system is facing a queer situation of quantum rise in Parties and qualitative decline in their operations.

Alas, political crimes have increased and “palace intrigue-type” political manoeuvres in some States expose the darker side of electoral Party politics.   What is happening in Tamil Nadu appears to have opened a new era of “cut throat’ politics.

In recent years, our Parliamentary function is largely understood as disrupting the proceedings and preventing work. No public or private workplace anywhere permits unruly behavior and pays salaries and perks for obstructing work.  It is high time that Party leaders teach the basics of work and Parliamentary duties to its members and refrain from leading mob action by MPs or MLAs.

Also, conflict of interest among our legislators has been noted in several instances, but no remedy has been found.  The problem is universal, but is no excuse for searching a local solution.  

In a rare show of political solidarity, Parties have come together to oppose the proposal to bring their outfits under the Right to Information Act.  An Central Information Commission order in 2016, declared 6 national Parties --- BJP, Congress, CPI, CPI(M), NCP, and BSP --- as public authorities coming under the purview of the Act as all of them are being substantially financed by the Central Government and their role and duties have a public character.

Information is believed to be an antidote to corruption and other malpractices.  This can limit abuse of discretion.  But, in a competitive system,   unrestricted publicity of Party matters might adversely affect inner Party democracy and weaken an outfit’s stature before the public. 

Hence, a via media has to be worked out to make information with predominant public interest and concern available to people without leaking out internal working and decision-making of the Parties.

Constantly engaged in a power tussle, Parties are as much concerned about building their financial resources as public support. All other functions like educating people, analyzing issues, examining laws and ensuring implementation of programmes etc are lost in the power game.

It is doubtful whether a law to govern establishment and functions of Parties can   arrest degeneration of this vital democratic system.  What is urgently needed is “principled Party politics” --- an ideal incorporating the seven “Nolan principles” --- selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

Parties engaged in battles for power cannot become monasteries but people who are watching their ways can turn as vigilant “watchdogs”. The ultimate hope lies with the people. ---- INFA

(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)



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