Saturday, May 11, 2013

Your vote does not count 2: Internal Party Democracy

[This follows: Your vote does not count.  The related articles are, You did not vote!’, ‘You did not vote!’: Part II]

Republic of India has had valuable experience of nearly sixty years working as a representative parliamentary democracy.  The experiences have shown the strengths of its political system, while clearly exhibiting its weaknesses.  One of the key weaknesses is that Indian political parties do not necessarily follow internal party democracy.  And unless this is legislated and enforced through an external watchdog like Election Commission it can be safely surmised that political parties of India would not implement it voluntarily.  Already a majority of Indians show disenchantment with Indian political system while the faith in the governance is eroding. 

Indian political parties have escaped scrutiny of their inner workings and trappings, thereby undermining Indian democracy.  Indian political parties’ method of selection of candidates and election of its leaders is not transparent, and in fact has all the features of autocratic machinations that are rooted in the very antithesis of a democracy.  These selection methods promote nepotism, sycophancy, promotion of mediocrity, suppression of diverse point of view, unilateralism, apotheosis of certain individuals or families, idolization and veneration of leaders beyond what is considered respectable and reasonable.

The role of political parties in India now stands ambiguous, escaping accountability while getting away with undemocratic methods in choosing the candidates and electing the leaders.  It is generally assumed that ‘primary function of political parties was to link the citizens with the government’ [Sartori].  Yet, a common man in India finds himself disconnected with the government essentially because the political party is acting as the barrier.  Instead of facilitating that link, Indian political parties are monopolizing the access to government denying the common man his participation in the governance of the country.

Current problems in Indian political system

While it is agreed that a political party is a logical entity formed by political leaders coming together onto a single platform on a common set of ideologies, vision or agenda, it is not a recognized constitutional entity.   For a valid and relevant reason, Indian Constitution is silent on the word ‘political party’, and nowhere does it refer to such an organization or entity.  Political party comes only as a convenience to form groups by the elected leaders who remain the legal and constitutionally recognized representative of the people.  However, these logical groups grew in prominence, as is expected in a large democracies consisting of diverse groups, but have ominously become the de facto ruler and representative of the people marginalizing the importance of the elected representative.  Nowadays a political party is more important than the elected representative.  People in India elect political parties and not the candidate.  The candidate just happens to be a formality. 

There are many problems with the way our political parties function, and they seem to have a direct bearing on how India is functioning as a country.  These problems are:

1. Indian politicians are not accountable to the people

The politicians in India do not feel the need to be accountable to the people who elect them, and the current political system doesn’t provide any redress mechanism.  The elected leader treats his people with disdain and is callous towards their issues.  He does not feel the need to connect to the people of his constituency once the elections are over.  Instead the loyalty is shown towards the party boss.  Scenes of the political leaders falling over the feet of the party boss are quite common.  Nobody is surprised to hear that an elected leader has been asked to blindly follow the diktats of the party boss on every issue and every bill sometimes going against the opinion of the people of his constituency.

2. Indian political parties have become political dynasties

Because of the non-transparent and autocratic system of selection of candidates and undemocratic methods of choosing the party leaders, Indian political parties have started to degenerate into bastions for powerful families turning them into political dynasties.  Right now, we have many political dynasties at the center and state levels, where allegiance to one person, one family, is paramount, overriding every other accountability.  A son or daughter of the current leader has more chances to become the leader than another senior or experienced leader in the same party.  Such political dynasties thrive on promoting nepotism, giving favors to the kith and kin in return for diehard trust and sycophancy.  The country is ruled by a set of political dynasties makes it an oligarchy and not a democracy.  To make India a democracy, the top most leaders should feel that they are elected by the people, not secured by loyalties of elected leaders. 

3. Indian political leaders do not provide an effective government to its people

The elected leaders are mostly preoccupied with ‘politics’ that seem to beset Indian political system, as against spending time on governance issues.  The survivors in our political system are not the ones who are better at administration or governance, but those who are adept in subterfuge and Machiavellian schemes.  Since the selection of candidates is not based on who is better at administration, but based on those who are able to fill the coffers of the party fund or those who can be blindly loyal to the party boss, the topic of effective governance is relegated as matter of lowest priority. 

Most elected leaders in India do not have offices in their constituency.  They live in capital city close to the Chief Minister or the party boss.  The people of the constituency rarely get a chance to meet their elected leader let alone convey their wishes, demands and grievances.  The current political system does not provide adequate means to the voters to select those candidates who they believe would become better administrators. 

Without much accountability towards the people, the elected leaders have no incentive to govern better or administer better.  If the elected leader fails to provide better governance it does not necessarily harm his chances for next election, as long as he is assured of getting the party ticket next time. Nowadays, a corrupt leader even dreams of ‘buying votes’ to win back the election further disincentivizing him from providing effective governance while incentivizing him to become rapaciously corrupt during his term. 

4. Indian citizens are unable to participate in politics and policy making

The elected leader does not make efforts to understand the opinions, wishes and demands of the people his constituency, because he does not feel the need.  The stance he takes on an issue fails to include the opinion and voice of the people of his constituency.  Right now, the elected leader is surrounded by stooges and sycophants with little imagination or clarity.  There is no contiguous hierarchy of people connecting the elected leader to his constituent population.  Citizens interested in participating in Indian politics have no means or methods at their disposal to get involved in creating awareness or the policy making. 

5. Indian politicians are corrupt, incompetent and above law

Indian politicians are some of the most corrupt people on the planet.  Even those politicians who enter politics with a determination to keep themselves above the corrupt methods eventually end up fighting in the rat race to earn more money through corrupt practices.  Indian political system is structured in such a way to make almost every politician corrupt.  After a while, every elected leader in India bemoans that there is no other way to become an elected leader without resorting to the corrupt methods. 

Indian politicians are not necessarily competent in the fields of politics and administration.  Many of them are more adept in amassing the ruffians to lead a riot more than heading a cabinet position. And there is no method to bring the competent people to head the administration.  Right now, the process of selection of candidates does not allow the merit of the candidates to come into the picture.

Many Indian politicians resort to subverting the law to escape the punishment for their corrupt practices.  Once again, this becomes a standard rule – one has to evade the legal system to become and remain an elected leader.  So, it becomes a necessity to bend the law in one’s favor, to keep oneself from languishing in the jail.  This creates a nexus of police administration, politician and the legal system so that the practices of the politicians can be overlooked.  Such a nexus undermines Indian democracy, where corrupt and criminals get to become elected leaders, while the police force is mandated to protect them.

Case for internal party democracy

Whether we admit it explicitly or realize this implicitly it is clear that political parties are ‘crucial actors in representative democracies’.  Political parties are supposed to act as legitimate conduits to translate the aims and aspirations of various peoples and groups, nurture political awareness amongst the populace, and develop a healthy discussion on policy formulation.   Internal party democracy makes the politicians accountable to the people and become responsible to one another.

There is an urgent need to introduce internal party democracy to vitalize and strengthen Indian democracy.   Internal party democracy is gaining attention across various countries because it has the potential to promote a ‘virtuous circle’ linking ordinary people with the government, bringing in practices of effective governance and eliminating some of the deficiencies seen when conducting affairs without it.

We find many examples from various democracies in the world where there are explicit laws or guidelines for promoting internal party democracy.  In Germany, a person is named as a candidate of the party if selected by an assembly of party members or party representatives.  And this is enforced through Federal Electoral Law. In Spain and Portugal, the constitutions require that the internal organization and function of political parties be democratic.  In Finland, it is enforced through an act of political parties from 1969.  Countries like USA, UK and Australia do not have explicit laws but the political parties follow internal party democracy under the scrutiny of media and people.

Internal party democracy has the following essential features:
A. Selection of candidates through transparent and democratic means
B. Election of party leaders through democratic methods
C. Party membership while open to all does not allow dilution of party ideology

D. The additional salient feature is regulation of political party finance.

The above essential features of internal party democracy should be enforced through Election Commission in India so that political parties become democratic in their inner structure.  However, one should take care not to go overboard to regulate them so stringently that it undermines independence of a political party to formulate and act on its ideology. 

A. Selection of Candidates

Selection of candidates that stand for election representing a political party is currently managed solely by the party bosses.  The party bosses are supported in these decisions by a small coterie of sycophants who may or may not actually participate in the elections.  These highly centralized power structures surrounding the party boss aid in creating political dynasties in the country.  These political dynasties have become very powerful, deciding the fates of the candidates that contest from the constituencies.   The candidates in an effort to win the ‘ticket’ from the party boss do all kinds of gimmicks to win the favor of the party boss, which includes making lavish presentations, and even prostrating on the ground to touch the boss’s feet.  Getting a party ticket is shrouded in secrecy known to very few insiders.  And the people of the constituency have no say in deciding who their candidate should be.  Therefore, the candidate does not owe allegiance to the people of his constituency but to the party boss.

Only a democratic and transparent selection process, where the registered party members of the constituency are allowed to choose the candidate, will bring in internal democracy in a political party, untethering the candidate from extreme dependence on the diktats and whims of a party boss.  This will usher a completely new form of democracy unseen before in Indian political system. 

B. Election of Party Leaders

Currently, the political parties have become fiefdoms of few party bosses and their families.  While the country’s government is supposed to be a democracy, the political parties are being run like monarchies where the party bosses is adulated, idolized and worshipped as incarnate of God.  Most of these bosses hold the leadership position for their lifetime, and when they die, the baton is passed onto a legitimate heir - his wife, son, daughter or a relative.   There is almost no chance for a worthy political leader outside the family to take the reins, unless he rebels against the leader to win a sizable chunk of supporters, or deserts the party to form his own.  That is also one of the reasons why we tend proliferation of political parties in our country.  

Many political parties do not announce their choice of leader for the chief minister or prime minister before elections.  The people are kept in dark.  This is done deliberately to allow post-election time for political maneuvers and other cabalistic negotiations outside the purview of the people who voted them.  This seriously undermines Indian democracy where the people do now know who is going to rule them.  And when the chief minister or prime minister is appointed by the party, people are not sure if he is accountable towards the people or the party boss who has appointed him. 

A democratic and transparent process is the need of the hour in selection of party leaders.  A political party should allow for legitimate election process where any party leader can lay claim to the title of the leader of the party, lay claim to the position of prime minister and chief minister.  The aspirants should contest in internal elections so that the winners name is announced before the elections, so that it becomes transparent for the people of the land who their leader will be after the elections.  

Political parties have to conduct elections which can be monitored by government agencies such as Election Commission to elect leaders at various levels.  These elections have to be fair and transparent so that they are not converted into a sham exercise. 

C. Party Membership

Currently, party members have no role in selecting the candidates for their constituency.  Most party members in India slowly become lackeys and sycophants, composed of two classes of people, unemployed people who completely depend on the party for their livelihood and the opportunistic businessmen who contribute funds to later expect favors from the elected leader.  The party members have no role in policy formulation and execution. 

Since the role of a party member in India is relegated to canvassing and rallying for the public meetings, there is no incentive to bulk of Indians to participate in party politics. 

However, with implementation of the guidelines for party enrollment, the definition of members, the eligibility for making party decisions and the methods for candidate and leader selection, people of India will have an incentive to become enrolled members to express their political opinion, to learn and participate in politics and policy making, and to fulfill political, social and economic ambitions.  Enrollment guidelines and party membership disputes can be handled by Election Commission to prevent misuse for benefit of a candidate. 

D. Regulation of political party finance

Currently, the biggest source for illegal fund movement in the country happens to be the political parties and its elected leaders.  The political parties use lot of illegal funds during electioneering, and keep their coffers filled to buy votes in times of political crisis.  The elected leaders are obligated to fill those coffers through corrupt practices.  Some of the contributors expect huge favors in return.  One of the key steps to make our democracy viable is to break this vicious cycle between black money, profiteers, and corrupt politicians.  Regulating party finance has been vital in invigorating many modern democracies across the world, and it is high time India does this expediently. 

Many modes are available to choose from, which include use of private and public funds, taking funds through transparent process, putting limits on large donors, expecting grass root level donations to increase the base and citizen participation.  Regulation and guidelines on fund receipts and fund utilization will free Indian politicians from the endemic corrupt practices. 

Solving problems through Internal Party Democracy

One can understand how these essential features will alleviate many of the problems of current political situation in the country.

Accountability towards people and not party bosses

The registered party members of each constituency will have the power to select the desired candidate.  The informed citizens and the activists can become party members to influence the decision of fellow voters to select a worthy candidate.  The election of candidates by the registered party members will cut the umbilical cord with the party boss.  Like in many mature democracies, the elected leader will no longer bow down to the boss, because he can now stand confident knowing his electorate is solely responsible for his candidature without influence or help from the party boss.  Achieving this confidence in the candidates is most the essential for future of our democracy.  This brings in accountability towards the people of his constituency.  The voters can now select someone who they feel will work towards the interests of the region.

Breaking down of dynastic form of political parties

If the candidates are to be elected by the registered party members of the constituency, the prospective candidate no longer has to bow down to party bosses.  This spells the end of political dynasties as we know it.  Candidates do not owe an allegiance to a party boss or his family.  With legalization of funding in place, the candidate doesn’t have to be favorable to the party boss to get his share of funds. 

Effective Governance

Accountability towards the people of the elected leader’s constituency leads to better governance.  Allowing people to monitor the performance of the elected leaders allows greater degree of transparency.  It imparts a motivation on the leader to perform better to prove his/her worth towards the people, and not the party boss. 

This makes the legislator to focus on achievements which can be highlighted to get the nomination for the next general election.  This pushes the elected representative to setup an office in his/her constituency to work closely with the people.  Also, on the macro-political sphere, an independent thinking legislator armed with power to represent the interests of his constituents vitalizes democracy in India leading to better governance. 

Increased participation of citizenry in politics and policy making

If you look at any political rally in the country right now, you will something stark – the informed Indian that you meet often in your life is completely missing from these events.  Right now, there is no mechanism by which informed and educated Indian could become part of Indian politics.  If someone is interested in joining politics, to play a role, to become an activist, a foot soldier, or a volunteer, to express opinion on a policy or bill, there is no means at his disposal.

Only when membership into a political party is regulated, his rights and duties defined and protected, can the informed Indian hope to join politics.  Political aspirants can start working at grass root level to become an elected leader in future.  The citizens who show keen interest in politics and affairs of their region can become vocal in their constituency to bring changes and reforms. 

Reduction in corrupt practices

Though more reforms are sought to incentivize the elected leaders to perform their duties without seeking gains through unlawful actions, the internal party elections would lead to better checking mechanisms, more scrutiny on the personal performance of the legislation, thereby leading to reduction in corrupt practices.  With the protective cover from the party boss gone, legislator is now left on his to prove his mettle.  This would automatically disincentivize a politician from egregiously embracing corrupt practices.  Over a period of time, the corruption would be greatly reduced (but not eliminated).  Also, Indians have to start admitting that the elected leader’s income should be vastly increased to disincentivize him from indulging in corrupt methods to lead a good lifestyle.

Examples from other nations

Germany has regulated internal party democracy in its constitution and has clear regulations on party registration, candidate selection and leadership elections through.  Finland has implemented internal party democracy through Political Parties Act with regulations on candidate selection, leadership elections and democratic internal rules with legal support.  New Zealand has passed legislation to provide for democratic pre-selections of candidates but has not made attempts to enforce it.  In Australia, only the state of Queensland has implemented internal party democracy regulations.  Regulations on internal party democracy pertaining to nominations, leadership or internal decision-making can be found in Spain, Venezuela, Portugal and Nepal.  Experiences of Ghana and Sierra Leone indicate that regulations can be ineffective if they are not enforced.  Though Nigeria has regulated internal party democracy though the constitution the leaders have been able to circumscribe them because of lack of enforcement apparatus.  Countries like United Kingdom, the United States and Australia have been averse to external regulations on the political parties due to their sustained liberal traditions.

But most of these countries, Australia, Germany, Portugal, Finland, Spain, United Kingdom, New Zealand, United States and Canada have regulated political party finance.

Going Forward

Implementing internal party democracy in India and legalizing the funding of political parties requires passage of bill in both the houses of Parliament without requiring a constitutional amendment.  The bill would enhance the scope and working of current Election Commission to include monitoring of the elections of registered political parties and also their funding activities. 

Unlike the Lokpal Bill which received negative reception from the elected leaders of India, because it was seen as a direct threat to each of their privileges, an Internal Party Democracy Bill would find wide support with many elected leaders.  For the first time, an MP or MLA who is not a son or daughter of the Prime Minister or Chief Minister can aspire to become one. 

[Continued… as ‘Implementation Details’]


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