What India must learn from America on intra-party democracy

Political parties like Congress, Shiv Sena, SP are controlled by families whereas BJP's remote control rests with RSS.

 |  6-minute read |   21-03-2016
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The presidential primaries in the United States are far from over. Though Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump remain in pole position, their competitors aren't thinking of dropping out anytime soon.

US primaries to continue

News reports suggested that president Barack Obama had indicated that senator Bernie Sanders should make way for Hillary Clinton to enable her to prepare for the final showdown in November. But 73-year-old Sanders shot back by stating that "the bottom line is that when only half of the American people have participated in the political process I think it is absurd for anybody to suggest that those people not have a right to cast a vote."

As the second half of the primary season begins, Sanders is hoping to cut short Clinton's delegate lead in contests which are likely to favour him. On the other hand, Trump isn't going to have it easy either. Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has already come out against Trump's candidature by terming him as a "fraud." Trump would have to withstand an internal palace coup guided by veteran Republicans who'd be keen to witness either senator Ted Cruz or governor John Kasich overcome the real estate mogul.

Never mind how personal party colleagues might get during primaries, the fact of the matter is that they do strengthen intra-party democracy. It's an expression of individual freedom when a former presidential hopeful publicly opposes the candidature of the current frontrunner. And although the White House maintained that president Obama did not name any particular candidate to drop out, it is encouraging to see Sanders continue his movement against inequality by promising to push the primaries till June despite the overwhelming odds in favour of Hillary.

Intra-party democracy in India

India, being the world's largest democracy, needs to take sufficient steps to incorporate a very high level of intra-party democracy. If we ignore the theory in textbooks then it is very much evident that the doors of Indian democracy are not open for all. Political parties ranging from the Congress to the Shiv Sena are controlled by certain families whereas the remote control in the case of the BJP rests with the RSS.

Also read: Will elections in India ever signify anything?

Not only the central leadership but even parliamentary and assembly constituencies have been hijacked by certain political leaders with money and muscle power. It will take years to clean up the mess but the process has to be initiated soon. We must begin from the top to bring about considerable change.

Gandhi vs Gandhi

The Indian National Congress has ruled India for more time than any other political party. No other party in the country has enjoyed the sort of nationwide appeal which the Congress once possessed. Unfortunately for the Congress, the contemporary era poses before the party one of its biggest challenges. Commentators have gone to the extent of suggesting that the Congress is suffering from an existential crisis.

Media has often been abuzz with rumours that many in the Congress want Priyanka Gandhi to lead the grand old party. Her elder brother Rahul Gandhi has so far failed to prove his mettle electorally. If the Miliband brothers, Ed Miliband and David Miliband can compete against one another for the leadership of the Labour Party in Britain, then why can't Priyanka and Rahul do the same as far as the Congress is concerned?

Some might argue that Priyanka is not interested in politics. Agreed! Then it leaves the party with an option to decide between Sonia and Rahul. Much has been reported in the media about a generational change within the Congress. Some reports have suggested that party veterans want Sonia to continue while the new guard wants Rahul. Shouldn't the mother-son duo settle it out in an election for the Congress leadership? What's wrong in such an arrangement? Democracy demands competition.

If Rahul can't prove his capability as a leader by winning elections then he must be tested in a primary sort of intra-party election. Leadership cannot be handed over on a platter to someone. It must necessarily be contested and claimed. Recently Prime Minister Narendra Modi mocked the Gandhis inside Parliament and claimed that they did not want the House to function because they were afraid of the emergence of new leaders who will get spotted if they speak out their minds freely inside Parliament.

To counter Modi, Congress must hold primaries wherein we have a possibility of either Gandhis taking on one another or any other leader like P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Shashi Tharoor or Jyotiraditya Scindia challenging the Gandhi hegemony in the Congress. That will certainly be a first for intra-party democracy in India.

What does it mean for the BJP?

Ever since the BJP came to power in 2014, there have been accusations that the party is being dominated by the triumvirate of Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and Arun Jaitley. While Shah happens to be the party president and Modi's Man Friday, Jaitley is Modi's go-to man in the government.

bjp-soc_032116072838.jpg  BJP is now dominated dominated by the triumvirate of Modi, Shah and Jaitley.

Party elders like Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie and Shatrugan Sinha have also made their dislike concerning the functioning of the party quite apparent. There is a clear divide between Modi's supporters and LK Advani's camp. The tension has been there since Modi was anointed the campaign committee chief for 2014 general elections. The decision prompted party patriarch LK Advani to resign. Though Advani was made to take back his resignation, Modi's ascent to power didn't ease out things between the two. Advani and co were sent packing to the Margdarshak Mandal. Yashwant Sinha described the act as one wherein leaders who were above the age of 75 were declared "brain dead."

Instead of continuing with their perennial shadow boxing, Advani and Modi's supporters should simultaneously stake claim for party leadership. They too should hold primaries wherein it must be conclusively decided as to who is the right person to lead the saffron outfit.

One-man parties

Political parties like AAP, AIADMK, BSP, RJD and TMC must also seize to be operated by one person alone. When will Arvind Kejriwal learn to accept dissent? Instead of expelling Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav, wouldn't have Kejriwal risen in stature had he gone in for an intra-party election against either one of them?

Intra-party elections ought to be institutionalised with the right spirit. Otherwise we will continue seeing the likes of Jayalalitha, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mamata Banerjee and Mayawati dominate their party like no other person. Yes, some of these leaders are immensely popular and might never face defeat in case of intra-party elections but it is high time that their supremacy is challenged for the sake of intra-party democracy itself. They can't go unchallenged or elected unopposed anymore.

There must be scope for multiple voices within political parties. Dissent should be tolerated instead of being frowned upon. If Shashi Tharoor says something positive about Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan then there is no need for the Congress to sack him as spokesperson which they shamefully did. Bipartisanship isn't a bad thing and if a leader is expressing his personal views then so be it. Media must also become habitual to differing opinions from a single political entity instead of terming every alternate opinion as a rebellion.

Post Script: Uttar Pradesh goes to polls next year. The ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) will have a tough time seeking re-election. Father Mulayam Singh Yadav has often been seen in public lecturing his son Akhilesh on governance. Shouldn't SP flirt with the idea of primaries before Uttar Pradesh elections? Who should be the SP's chief ministerial candidate: Mulayam Singh Yadav or Akhilesh Yadav? Let the voters decide.


Saif Ahmad Khan Saif Ahmad Khan @saifakhan

The writer is pursuing MA Convergent Journalism from AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia.

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