Should the ECI insist on inner-party elections?

‘The ECI expects political parties to abide by their constitution. It is not for the commission to step in or criticise if anyone is elected unopposed’

September 23, 2022 01:42 am | Updated 11:10 am IST

Senior Congress leader and MP Shashi Tharoor interacts with Congress Central Election Authority Chairman Madhusudan Mistry during a meeting in New Delhi on September 21, 2022.

Senior Congress leader and MP Shashi Tharoor interacts with Congress Central Election Authority Chairman Madhusudan Mistry during a meeting in New Delhi on September 21, 2022. | Photo Credit: PTI

The Congress is set for elections for the post of party president. Since 1998, barring her son Rahul Gandhi’s two-year term in the interim, Sonia Gandhi has been party president. This has revived the debate on whether internal elections should be mandated for all political parties. In a conversation moderated by Sobhana K. Nair, S.Y. Quraishi and Rahul Verma discuss the current situation and what can be done. Edited excerpts:

Is there any legal ground on which elections can be mandated within political parties? 

S.Y. Quraishi: Actually, as far as I remember, there is no law. In [the 1990s], when T.N. Seshan was at the helm at the Election Commission of India (ECI), by an executive order political parties were ordered to conduct organisational elections. And because Seshan was a much respected and feared person, political parties complied with it. Since then, elections are held periodically in every recognised party. If they are not able to hold an election for any reason, they seek condonation [for the] delay, which is liberally granted. And the ECI generally has been very soft on this. The ECI does not question the result or the procedure the parties followed. The ECI expects political parties to abide by their constitution, a copy of which is also submitted to the commission when the parties are registered. It is not for the commission to step in or criticise if anyone is elected unopposed. 

Rahul Verma: Let me make two points. First, on the legal ground, because there is a great paradox here. India, it seems, is a party-led democracy or democracy based on political parties. But the phrase “political party” [was] nowhere mentioned or described in our Constitution. The definition of a political party for the first time enters through the anti-defection law in 1985. All rules and regulations apply more to candidates than to political parties in India. The courts have made an observation that nothing in Article 324 of the Constitution, or Section 29(A) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 tells us that the ECI can actually regulate internal structures, organisations or elections of the party. Which is why parties, on the left or right, have not been conducting internal elections as you want them to conduct them. In this sense, most political parties in India have become similar, where internal structures and organisations do not follow their own constitutional norms. 

Citing the recent internal elections of the Conservative Party in the U.K., many have claimed that leadership polls within a party diminish its status among the voters because the contestants end up criticising their own party’s policies. 

S.Y. Quraishi: When we see the U.S. election, for instance, the selection of the candidate to be the presidential nominee is done via debate, in which the contenders condemn and criticise each other. For instance, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton contested and called each other names, but then Mr. Obama won [as President in 2008], and Ms. Clinton was appointed Secretary of State. I don’t know how they get over the bad blood created during the campaign. It could be counter-productive. Theoretically democracy is ideal, but could it in the long term weaken the party? These debates could come to haunt the successful candidate. We saw something similar in the U.K. Democracy should be at every level, and political parties are an essential pillar of democracy. And yet, therein lies the contradiction because every election is divisive. In a contrary scenario, if a party follows a single leader, who they worship and stand united behind, it can lead to a high command culture where only the favourite of the said leader gets promoted over the actually popular leaders. We need to establish a balance between both these options.  

Rahul Verma: Any system that you bring in will always come with some positive and negative externalities — there is no perfect rule, there is no perfect law. As Mr. Quraishi also pointed out, in internal elections, like the U.S. primaries, you are going to have these contests between leaders, and there will be some mudslinging and differences of opinion. But at the end of the day, you have to understand what political parties are. Political parties don’t have to be homogeneous in terms of both ideas and leadership. Political parties are aggregations of interests, right? So there are going to be differences within. Having these internal elections, meetings and contests of ideas is important. Second, and as you rightly pointed out, internal elections are key for upward mobility. And that is why what we are witnessing today in India — and South Asia — is problematic for democracy, where all political parties are centralised. They are family-controlled parties, and dynastic politics has become a norm. You won’t be able to name more than three or four political parties which have survived 30 years in Indian politics and are today not controlled by a political family, where you can only rise up the ranks in the system depending on the relationship you share with the first family of that party. High command culture is a symptom of the problem which we are witnessing today. 

Would state funding of elections bring in more democracy and accountability within political parties? 

S.Y. Quraishi:  Well, actually, that’s a totally different question and debate. I am against state funding for elections, but instead the government must consider state funding of political parties. Currently, they have to beg, borrow and steal to run their outfits. They take money from the corporates and, of course, there are no free lunches. One very objective criteria of this funding could be the votes they get; for example, the state can pay them Rs.100 for each vote polled in their favour. The formula I suggest is completely objective: receive money as per the number of votes polled for you. It is very workable. Unfortunately, political parties seem to like the present confusion, so nobody is talking about it. 

Rahul Verma: I completely agree with Mr. Quraishi. There has been always a conversation on internal regulation of political parties. In fact, the 1999 Law Commission Report strongly recommended that we should have some mechanism for it, and Mr. Quraishi as the CEC in 2011 also submitted a draft on this to the Union Law Ministry. But it was neither accepted, nor did it generate a debate inside or outside Parliament. Obviously, political parties prefer the present situation which is akin to the foxes guarding the house. The formula of how to go about state funding is debatable, but we do have to start thinking about some model of state funding of political parties. I think going forward the ECI will have to come with some innovative ways on how to regulate political parties. 

Should there be new laws making organisational elections mandatory?

S.Y. Quraishi:  The ECI does insist on organisational elections, but only gently. The parties do conduct elections, even if you consider them sham elections, but they do go through the ritual. Also an election can happen only if there are two or more candidates in the fray. Getting elected unopposed is also a valid election. It is not just within the political parties, we have seen in panchayat elections and sometimes even in Lok Sabha and State Assembly elections that candidates have got elected unopposed. As I keep saying, the people are the final arbitrators. If voters think that the organisational elections were only an exercise in tokenism, then they should throw out such leaders. 

Rahul Verma: I don’t think we need a law. I think we need a new interpretation and some bold moves from the ECI re-interpreting the existing laws, as happened in the 1990s. I slightly disagree with Mr. Quraishi. You can’t leave everything to the people’s choice. The reason is, as a voter, I’m basically choosing the best among the worst options. And that’s why the ECI has to imagine its role as a regulator of these political parties. And in some ways they have to try out milder options. As Mr. Quraishi pointed out, they are required to hold organisational elections regularly. The parties are required to inform the ECI about changes in their office-bearers and addresses. They are required to submit a document of expenditure incurred during elections and in the non-election period. But there is no cost attached to non-compliance. At the same time, I think threats to de-register [a party] are bad. We’ll have to find some middle ground.

S.Y. Quraishi is a former Chief Election Commissioner of India; Rahul Verma, a political analyst, is a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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