Indian Express
Jagdeep S. Chhokar
New Delhi

Suhas Palshikar (‘By the ballot alone’, IE, August 6) presented an elegant case against internal democracy in political parties. How persuasive, though, was it?

Professor Palshikar reminded us about the Congress’s attempt to elect its leader by an internal vote in 1966 and its aftermath, a “deep and long-running factional fight within the party leading to a split in 1969.” Lack of democratic spirit was in evidence as far back as 1939, when the elected president of the party, Subhas Bose, was expelled. The non-democratic Congress “System” may have been appropriate for a mass movement seeking independence from a colonial power. The inherent contradiction of undemocratic political parties in a democratic country arose only after the Constitution came into effect. The contradiction multiplies, as all political formations that have come into being subsequently continued to adopt the Congress “System” as the model for their internal functioning.

Prof Palshikar points out, rightly, that a real election for leadership brings the fissures out in the open. But the real question is: Is it better to hide fissures, and let members indulge in covert sabotage, or is it better to get things out in the open, face them, and deal with them — even at the cost of a split so that both parts can do whatever they want in a focused way?

The observation that “this predicament is common to any large party and raises difficult questions about running a mass-based party in a ‘democratic’ manner” is disturbing. It smacks of an elite bossing over the hoi polloi. Yes, the questions involved in running any large political party, mass-based or otherwise, are difficult but, as the saying goes “if you cannot stand the heat, don’t get into the kitchen.” Oligarchic political parties are a glaring inconsistency in a democracy.

Prof Palshikar also suggests “large parties do have something like internal democracy.” The key phrase here: “something like”. All MLAs “authorising” the high command to name a chief minister is “something like” democracy! A coterie or a family “running” a party is “something like” democracy!! What is the need to settle for “something like”? Why can’t we work towards a “real” democracy? We are also warned that “knowing that the leadership issue will be settled not by mutual give-and-take or ‘consensus’, but by a vote, potential contenders will start strategising during the period of candidate selection and election campaign.” The implicit assumption that this does not happen now is untenable. Pretending that the contenders don’t strategise now is akin to saying “something like” democracy is democracy.

Another purported risk of internal democracy is that “even while we democratise the space called intra-party competition, it would lead to much more chaos and power-mongering than we currently experience.” Why not give internal democracy a chance before rejecting it as the greater of the two evils?

Another observation that invites comment: “The Congress party, which itself has been the architect of the consensus approach, caricatured and distorted it in the name of ‘high command’. But we need to keep aside that distortion and look at the innovativeness in not following the Western model for managing intra-party competition.” This so-called “distortion” is the reality. Yes, we can “keep aside” the reality, and keep congratulating ourselves and taking pride in “not following the Western model”, but that can only be done at a tremendous cost. We have seen some of these costs rather graphically over the last couple of years.

And let’s not forget, real inner-party democracy is not limited only to the election of leaders and thus only superficial, it actually means going all the way down, and decisions on choice of candidates within parties being taken by popular vote amongst party workers and members.

While the BJP may have attempted to take the credit for the secret ballot election of D.V. Sadananda Gowda to replace B.S. Yeddyurappa, it is clear as daylight to anyone who cares to see that democratic practice was as far away from BJP’s intentions as it can be. The suggestion that “this development portends the death of the idea of a party and the survival of factions engaged in a ‘democratic’ fight over competitive extraction of public resources” deserves serious consideration. It also raises perhaps the most critical question: Should we not also worry about the “death of the idea of a nation” even if the parties survive?

The writer is a former director of IIM-Ahmedabad and a founding member of the Association for Democratic Reforms

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