Comment

No inner-party democracy

Boris Johnson at a Cabinet meeting in London.

Boris Johnson at a Cabinet meeting in London. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

The ousting of Boris Johnson as leader of the British Conservative Party is the latest in a series of coups periodically mounted by the party’s MPs to get rid of a leader who has become an electoral or political liability. The template is well known by now: it begins with loud grumbles from backbench MPs, moves on to a swell of Cabinet resignations by ministers with an eye on the leadership, and finally culminates in serving and hitherto loyal Cabinet members politely telling the Prime Minister that the time has come to fall on one’s sword. The entire process has been more or less accurately summarised by a former Conservative leader, William Hague, who described his party as an “absolute monarchy tempered by regicide”. In the less felicitous words of Mr. Johnson himself, “When the herd moves, it moves.”

Stumbling blocks

What is instructive about this whole process, however, is how much power ordinary MPs have over the Prime Minister. A Prime Minister has to be able to maintain the confidence of his own backbenchers at all times or risk political oblivion. It does not matter that he may have led his party to a historic mandate, as Mr. Johnson did, reminding us in his resignation speech that he delivered the largest majority for the party since 1987. If there is a sense that the leader is no longer acceptable to the country, then a well-oiled machine springs into action to protect the party’s electoral gains by providing fresh leadership.

Contrast this, however, with India, where the Prime Minister exercises absolute authority over party MPs, whose ability to even diverge slightly from the official government line on routine policy matters is almost non-existent. The Prime Minister’s power is strengthened by India’s unique anti-defection set-up, where recalcitrant MPs who do not manage to carry two-thirds of their colleagues with them (an astronomical number in real terms at the national level) can always be disqualified. In effect, MPs do not enjoy any autonomy at all to question and challenge their party leadership. This reduces them to cheerleaders and mouthpieces for whoever happens to lead their party at that time. Neither is it anyone’s case that Prime Ministers or Chief Ministers at the State level are chosen by legislators — the choice is invariably made by a party high command, and then submitted to MPs/MLAs to be rubber stamped.

Our Westminster system allows voters to be heard once every five years. The underlying assumption is that, in the interim, their voice is articulated through their representatives. It is time for India to seriously consider empowering its elected representatives, to ensure accountability for party leadership. MPs in the U.K. are able to act boldly because they do not owe their nomination to the party leader, but are selected by the local constituency party. In India, however, it is the party leadership that decides candidates, with an informal consultation with the local party. Neither do MPs in the U.K. stand a risk of disqualification if they speak out against the leader, a threat perpetuated in India through the anti-defection law. These factors are the biggest stumbling blocks towards ensuring inner-party democracy in India.

The need for an exception

How then do we go about changing this? A workable model can be borrowed from the U.K. where individual Conservative MPs write to the 1922 Committee (which comprises backbench MPs, and looks out for their interests) expressing that they have “no confidence” in their leader. If a numerical or percentage threshold (15% of the party’s MPs in the U.K.) is breached, an automatic leadership vote is triggered, with the party leader forced to seek a fresh mandate from the parliamentary party. Of course, the only way such a model would work is if an exception is made to the anti-defection law, which is at present wholly without nuance and susceptible to gross misuse by party leaders hoping to cling on to power.

This is, of course, at best an interim arrangement. In the long run, the Westminster model dictates that control over candidates must shift from central party leaders to local party members. But until that happens, the marginal gains from such an arrangement would go a long way towards empowering both MPs and their constituents.

Shourya Dasgupta is an advocate practising in New Delhi


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Printable version | Jul 20, 2022 12:16:00 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/no-inner-party-democracy/article65658107.ece