Citizens’ protests in the last few years signal a consensus among all segments of society that the “rules of the game” of conducting politics in India need to change

India is yet again on the cusp of a battle for deeper democratisation. The data from nationwide surveys have repeatedly shown that Indians increasingly view their elected representatives and political parties as uncaring, unreachable, unresponsive, untrustworthy, and unrepresentative. This overarching anger against the functioning of legislative institutions (particularly Parliament), political parties, and elected representatives has led to massive protests by citizens and civil society activists in the last few years. The office of the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) and courts took cognisance of the matter and delivered a series of verdicts to deal with legislators with criminal records, free flow of black money during elections, needless competition among political parties to announce freebies, caste-based rallies, and massive corruption implicating many legislators. Similarly, the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) — a non-party political movement — is likely to force mainstream parties not to be brazen about the “winnability factor” in allocating ticket to candidates with criminal records and family ties.

Several commentators in the past few months have criticised the overzealous attempts by courts to clean up India’s party politics, and expressed doubts about whether the AAP will survive long enough in its idealistic mode to have any influence on the rules of conducting politics in India. We disagree with this view. Our concern in this article is not whether the AAP will succeed in the electoral battlefield or if these rulings delivered by the CIC and courts are an exercise in judicial overreach. We believe that citizens’ protests in the last few years signal a widespread consensus among all segments of society that the “rules of the game” of conducting politics in India need to change. We argue that even if political experiments (like the AAP) fail, they help substantially in moving the established norms to a new equilibrium. In our view, laws and rulings alone do not challenge established norms. However, the presence of a political party, mobilising voters on a similar platform, helps in doing so by significantly strengthening the legal process itself, by disarming those who would seek to scuttle such change.

Legal decisions can never be permanent solutions for they are turned and overturned on the basis of interpretations of specific words/clauses of a statute or provision. Political parties and their leaders in India have few incentives to play by the rules. For instance, they are required to submit documents to the Election Commission (EC) about expenditures and contributions they receive. Many parties submit incomplete documents and others submit even more unbelievable documents. The BSP, for example, submitted a two-page affidavit to the Election Commission claiming that it had not received any donations above Rs. 20,000 — the legal limit above which all contributions need to be disclosed.

To clean up the muddy waters, courts and the EC have stepped in from time to time. BSP leader Mayawati’s rupee garland was considered a campaign contribution by the EC and needed to be declared. However, such interventions and judgments have often fallen short of expectations and have been indicative of judicial overreach.

Anti-Defection Law

The Anti-Defection Law was passed in 1985 and strengthened in 2002. This law is a concrete example that substantiates a limited claim of unintended consequences. The law succeeded in checking the regular phenomenon of unstable governments and horse-trading due to floor crossing by legislators. However, it played a huge role in encouraging the centralisation of India’s political parties. Legislators in India now cannot take a stand against party leaders or defy the party whip, and use their conscience to vote on a Bill in the House due to fear of losing their seat under the provisions of the Anti-Defection law. The second unintended consequence of this law is that a legislator cannot question the party leader for flirting with a possible alliance with both the Congress and the BJP while toying with the idea of a third front. Sweet deals between top party leaders — not ideological harmony, social constituency compatibility or organisational coherence —determine political alliances in contemporary India.

Parties thrive on how successfully they can divide electorates and seek support, and voters reward or punish the party — its actions and inactions — at the next given opportunity. The problem we seek to rectify does not stem immediately from parties in their mobilisational role but in their role as institutions that link the state with society. This distinction needs to be analytically separated. We may love to hate political parties but the truth is no one has shown how representative government could work without them. Political parties are “necessary evils” and in E.E. Schattschneider’s words “modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of political parties.” The word ‘party’ itself, as Giovanni Sartori emphasised many years ago, derives its meaning from the Latin verb meaning ‘to part or divide’. The role of political parties is to link the state and society by aggregating divergent interests. Politicians are not only office seekers, but also have interests and values stemming from various identities such as economic position, gender, caste, religion, region, language, and so forth. Parties in their mobilisational role use such social faultiness because it is inherent in their definition of why they exist.

Political parties are the torchbearers of the representative character of Indian democracy. No other institution — NGO, the media, courts or the bureaucracy — that claims to represent societal interests has completely succeeded in accommodating marginalised groups. Empirical research suggests that civil society organisations and NGOs are dominated by social elites, especially the upper castes and middle classes. Ironically, not a single media house has members belonging to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes in their top decision-making team. Similarly, among 88 Secretary-level posts in the Central government, there is not a single Dalit bureaucrat and in the last 60 years, only four judges belonging to the SC have become judges in the Supreme Court of India. This may give us a hint about why Dalit entrepreneurs have organised a separate forum (DICCI), rather than joining FICCI.

We think that the AAP phenomenon needs to be understood in this broader context of changing norms of conducting electoral politics in India. Let us take, for instance, the experiment of India’s first national Dalit party, the Bahujan Samaj Party. The BSP started as a political experiment, initially had an electoral stronghold in Punjab, but subsequently emerged as one of the strongest players in Uttar Pradesh. Later, all the ills associated with political parties also afflicted the BSP. However, one cannot deny that it gave Dalits an organised political voice and a proper channel of representation in the electoral arena, so much so that now every politician has to cater to their demands for governance and it is virtually impossible to think in terms of national politics without thinking about the Dalit question. In turn, all types of institutions have displayed a greater willingness to incorporate Dalits and address their demands. While the situation still leaves much to be desired, the point we are trying to make is that if the Dalit question had not emerged through a mass politics of agitation, legislation alone could not have possibly guaranteed their incorporation into mainstream politics.

Similarly, the entry of the AAP has deepened the possibility of renewal in India’s electoral arena. The party has successfully managed to alter the terms of debates and has even altered the rules of the game. It has shown that campaign finance can be collected transparently and declared even more transparently. It has shown that nothing beats people-to-people contact and that politicians should aim to serve the public and not the other way around. It has shown that nominations can be given democratically and has also demonstrated a willingness to comply with the norms of the Election Commission. In doing so, it has strengthened the reach of the Election Commission by paving the way for future legislation.

Incremental process

Now this is not to overstate the bright side of the AAP. It is also entirely possible that the AAP will be afflicted just like the BSP was with corrupt members, and perhaps in a decade or so we will no longer think of the party as a harbinger of institutional change. However, the argument we make is linked to the idea that it doesn’t matter if the AAP fails its own public. What matters is what it sets in motion — an incremental process of institutional change defined by the need to have a cleaner, corruption free politics. Because of the AAP, the standards of politics have changed and this is what we think is its greatest contribution. It may have moved institutional mechanisms in India to a new equilibrium where corruption is not acceptable and cannot be lazily rationalised.

The Indian state has been consistently hollowed out, stolen from and weakened in capacity over the years by people chosen by the public to safeguard the interest of the very same public. The rise of the AAP has been surprising and dramatic and the detractors are many. It is possible that in the coming months, the party may not be able to abide by the high standards it has set, but as the BSP example suggests, the battle for some severe institutional changes in the functioning of India’s electoral democracy has begun. India’s electoral politics is a decidedly murky process, and it is so by design. This route is not a quick-fix solution, but the true meaning of democracy can be realised only when democratic ideals are deeply embedded in the practice of democracy.

(Vasundhara Sirnate is the Chief Coordinator of Research at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy. She and Rahul Verma are Ph.D candidates at the Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley.)

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