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Inner Party Democracy : NO MODEL WORTH A COPY, By Dr S Saraswathi, 3 Nov, 2017 Print E-mail

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New Delhi, 3 November 2017

Inner Party Democracy


By Dr S Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


Addressing a festive gathering at the BJP headquarters last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged the media to raise a debate on “internal democracy in political parties” – an essential prerequisite for democratic system of government. The issue arising from unconcealed family leadership and its absolute control in a number of parties has suddenly gained extraordinary significance in the context of the forthcoming elevation of  Rahul Gandhi as the President of the oldest political party in the country, the Congress, though no reference was made to this.


Modi has asked the media to particularly watch how the parties function, how leadership emerges, and how democratic values and ideologies are practised within the parties. In his view, democratic processes involved in decision-making in parties deserve more attention than party funding which is widely debated. He also observed that only through political parties, a person could go up or come down in a democracy like India.


There can be no dispute over his contention that parties with a “true democratic spirit” are essential for a healthy democracy in the country as the world has seen the fate of many countries in the West and the East that have gone through dictatorial single party regime.


The practice of declaring a leader as “permanent head” is a noteworthy undemocratic contribution to the party system itself by some parties in India. It is enough to make the party undemocratic in letter and spirit and to reduce it as a private property. Unfortunately, the masses seem to trust the leader they adore as a demi-God and so are unable to realise the consequences of supporting unquestioned leadership. 


There are a total of 1841 parties registered with the Election Commission -- 7 national, 49 State, and 1785 unrecognised. Not all of them are serious contenders to power even at the State or local level. But all are interested in having a group of supporters to some cause or interests and in many cases to a particular leader.


The Representation of People Act 1951 prescribes that only an association or body of individual citizens of India calling itself a political party and intending to avail itself of the provisions of Part IV A of the Act regarding registration of political parties is required to register with the EC.

For this, the association or body must have a memorandum or rules and regulations which should contain a specific provision that the association or body “shall bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India as by law established and to the principles of socialism, secularism, and democracy, and uphold sovereignty, unity, and integrity of India”.


It may well be expected that the principle of democracy mentioned in the provision first covers   internal democracy of the party so as to get equipped to uphold national democracy. Unfortunately, caste associations, religious groups, social movements, and personality-based groups like fan clubs of film stars transformed as political parties are common in India. Some of them groomed in a tradition of hero worship continue to indulge in non-democratic modes of functioning in parties.

Democracy does not come into operation automatically or spontaneously in any organisation.  Democratic principles and regulations have to be adopted consciously and followed vigorously with eternal vigilance. Even the founder’s charisma, wisdom, and commitment to the welfare of the people cannot guarantee a party’s democratic set up and functioning unless party rules provide for that and followed strictly by the organisation. On the contrary, charisma may work against inner organisational democracy and lead to the party’s demise along with the charismatic leader.


Multi-party democracies, theoretically, do not give much room for emergence of charismatic leadership. But, the reality in India falsifies the proposition as most of the parties are restricted in space and interests. Competitive skill, knowledge, commitment, and virtue are required for leadership and scope for participation, opportunities, and recognition for all members are needed for growth of parties.


The Prime Minister, in the talk referred to, also urged the media to discuss how values and ideology are imparted in political parties. He cited at “different voices” heard within the BJP contrasting it with similarity of views that prevailed from central leaders to junior-most members of the party in the Jan Sangh era. He attributed this loss of “unanimity” within the party to its expansion that has made “intense training sessions” and “regular communication” within the party impossible.


Inner party democracy and inner ideological unity exist in different proportions in political parties in India and abroad. They are set in the constitution of committees and selection of leaders, the process for formulation of ideology and policies, identification of candidates to contest elections, extent of transparency and participation in decision-making, and freedom of discussion and criticism within the party. They are regulated by law in some countries.


The Federal Republic of Germany is considered a model for strong inner party democracy. Its Basic Law contains a provision that requires political parties’ internal organisation “to conform to democratic principle”. A person can be named as candidate of a party in a constituency only if he or she has been selected in an assembly of party members for selection of a candidate or in a special general assembly of party representatives. Another provision prescribes that the candidate and the representatives for the assemblies of representatives shall be selected by secret ballot.


Parties that have emerged from labour movements in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand are founded on an understanding that policies would be decided by members and approved at the conference and not the other way of originating from the party elite and endorsed by members.


But, parties grown in liberal traditions consider external control detrimental to genuine party contests and are reluctant to impose external regulations on political associations. Freedom of the parties to set and govern their own internal structures and processes is insisted by liberal parties.


The Spanish Constitution says that the internal structure and operation of political parties must be democratic. Political parties in Portugal are to be governed by the principles of transparency, democratic organisation and management, and participation by all members. In Finland, the Act on Political Parties adopted in 1969 prescribes that the structure and management of political parties must be democratic and regulates their functioning. A “plebiscitary model of intra-party democracy” is taking shape in Canada.


Green parties have strong faith in grassroots democracy and provide suitable institutions and processes for participation, power sharing, and consensus decision-making. As these have their origin from social movements, they stress decentralisation, local autonomy, and mass participation.


In Indian politics, most of these developments seem to be absent. Similar situations produce different types of parties, and same causes yield opposite results. For example, smaller parties in western countries are seen to encourage greater participation of members and more transparency in functioning. But, there are more cases of autocratic functioning and singular head in smaller parties in India. Even grassroots movements fighting for people’s rights end up in solo performance.


There is no model worth copying from abroad. Tight regulations may democratise the party organisation, but democratic functioning depends on the spirit of members and supporters and the silent public. –INFA


(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)




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