Governing political parties

Arguably, independent India’s most fateful decision was taken by the Congress parliamentary party in 1965, as they gathered to elect a new leader after Lal Bahadur Shastri’s death. Their election of Indira Gandhi as their leader, enabling her to take office as Prime Minister, not only had profound consequences for the country’s polity, but also resulted in the ultimate destruction of the Indian National Congress. The entity that exists today as a sort of family office that works to promote her grandchildren’s interests has nothing to do with the great institution that fought for and won India its freedom.

At first glance, it appears as if the election of Indira Gandhi was an accident that could have easily gone the other way. The party then had no dearth of stalwarts who could probably have served just as well as prime minister. The reason for the choice was that the Congress, at that time, was split between the socialists and the conservatives, and both sides, rather than run the risk of having someone from the other faction in power, opted to support a supposed non-entity. It is another matter that this goongi gudiya (dumb doll) went on to render both factions defunct anyway.

Where does this tendency to avoid open confrontation, a penchant for unhealthy compromises come from? The problem is institutional and structural, flowing from a lack of intra-party democracy. When a decision is democratically taken, it is perceived as more legitimate. It is a more sensible alternative to civil war. In normal, unstructured, warfare, both sides live under extreme uncertainty. The losing side fears that the winners may carry out a purge and destroy them, and the winning side is afraid that the losers may stage a coup and depose them. This provides an incentive to both sides to fight hard and dirty when they do have to fight, or avoid a confrontation at all costs when they are weary of it. An openly fought and won election, on the other hand, provides reassurance to both the winners and losers. The winners have a reasonable assurance that they will not be hassled for the current term, and the losers sure that they will have another chance to fight when the next election is called.

Democratic countries typically learn this lesson over decades, if not centuries. As they gradually build reliable institutions, internal strife has reduced. It is important not to understate the importance of these institutions. Democracy is much more than just an election. It can be hardly called a democracy if the winner could do away with, or weaken, other candidates, or cancel the next election. Truly democratic countries, through law or custom, or both, keep these institutions, the building blocks of democracy, outside of “democratic” control for this very reason.

India does have the trappings of a democracy. Its democracy is considered, by common consensus, to be a qualified success. But its institutions, such as they are, have been grafted from plants that took root outside. Does this matter? Answering this question will require us to answer the question of how much culture matters, and to understand this, we must return to the internals of Indian political parties.

The internal organisation of political parties in India is a paradox. Parties contest democratic elections, but are themselves run as fiefdoms. Party elections are rare, and when conducted, they are a sham. One could argue that this is what comes of imposing democratic institutions on an undemocratic culture. The undemocratic nature of India’s political parties probably mirrors its feudal culture more accurately than do India’s democratic institutions. Also, Indians tend to fetishise unity. The standard narrative is that it is because India was disunited that it was invaded and conquered so many times. Unfortunately, this emphasis on unity translates into an “obey the leader” ethic that kills debate and discussion, and ultimately encourages fissiparous tendencies. The fact that Indian political parties tended to follow the intellectual tradition of the revolutionary Communist parties of the Soviet bloc more than that of the parties in Western democracies, also surely matters.

But to say that a choice is cultural is not to say that it cannot be changed. Laws affect cultural change to the same extent that culture affects the decision to enforce or obey laws. More narrowly, forcing parties to hold regular elections is just what is needed to break the bind that has been discussed above. By providing the assurance that elections will be held and thereby the assurance that they have a voice and a chance to succeed, the law will provide an incentive to party members to stay on and build the party rather than break off and form a new party at the drop of a hat.

Would such a decision be antithetical to liberty and to the right to free association? The United States Supreme Court had occasion to tackle this question when it chose to force the two main parties to open up their primaries to black members. It argued that the political parties in the US were so closely intertwined with the system of government that regulating their membership rules would be no different from imposing restrictions on a government entity.

India is of course under no obligation to accept the reasoning of the United States Supreme Court. Sadly though, when India has chosen to regulate political parties, it has done so in ways that restrict democratic freedoms. Indian political parties are forced to subscribe to socialism, which is a mockery of voter choice. The anti-defection law forces members of legislatures to vote on lines dictated by their party leaders on the pain of expulsion from the legislature. It also forbids legislators from changing parties.This law has resulted in the explosion of political parties after the 90s, as petty leaders chose to form their own parties and retain the freedom to support anyone they wished rather than join a party and get locked into supporting a party boss. The women’s reservation bill, in a subtle way, will do the same.

India’s regulation of political parties is, like all its regulations unrealistic, inconsistent and spottily enforced. Campaign finance laws set such ridiculously low limits that they are practically impossible to stay within. Come election time, the Election Commission assumes almost dictatorial powers over the parties’ conduct and also on various aspects of governance, but the rest of the time, no one even bothers to audit the books of political parties.

India will benefit from a law regulating elections in political parties that is actually enforced. Yet of the two major parties in India, one is a family-owned entity, and the other is an entity that has hierarchy embedded deeply into its DNA. The minor political parties are all feudal entities in their own way. It is these groups that need to get together to pass a law that will reduce their own power. Sadly, there is not much chance of that.

Note: We’ve corrected an error that came to our notice too late, and hence cannot be changed in the print or online edition – the third sentence in the fourth paragraph should read “It is important not to understate…”