The question of intraparty democracy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly targeted the Congress over charges of dynastic politics and the lack of internal democracy in the party. The elevation of Rahul Gandhi as Congress president has been used by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to portray the Congress as an organisation that adheres to the principle of dynastic succession in contrast to the rise of its party workers to top echelons to project itself as a party with a difference. The domination of the Nehru-Gandhi family over the Congress is unmistakable — Mr. Gandhi is the sixth member from the family to occupy the top post in the party. The facts and implications of Mr. Gandhi’s election as party chief are clear, but what about the BJP? Does it have contested elections? Is there intraparty democracy in the BJP and in other political parties?

Although election of the party president cannot be the sole criteria for judging intraparty democracy, the BJP views the matter solely through the lens of how parties elect chiefs. The facts are clear in the case of the BJP too: there has been no contest for the president’s post in the BJP since it was founded in 1980. All presidents have come through the selection or nomination route. Elections have taken place at the State level, but this practice too has been jettisoned in recent years in favour of election by consensus.

Centralised decision-making

The selection of the party president in the BJP is not guided by dynastic succession; it is generally guided by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) which plays the most important role in picking the party president. Legitimate questions arise about the influence of the RSS on the BJP, which invariably get brushed aside by drawing attention to the lack of internal democracy in the Congress. Also, there is an assumption that the BJP as a non-dynastic party would have better intraparty democracy. But there is no major difference between the two parties in their internal democratic structures. The vanishing of democracy in the Congress as a result of the centralising impulses of Indira Gandhi has been the subject of unrelenting criticism, but nearly all parties are centralised in their decision-making and have been run from the top down in terms of distribution of party tickets, selection of Chief Ministers and State party leaders, and party finance.


The Congress led the way, but most other parties have been quick to follow the model. In the Congress, the selection of the Chief Minister is not left to the legislature party in the State assembly. This is a far cry from the situation before the 1969 split in the party when recommendations of State units for candidates for parliamentary or Assembly seats or Chief Minister were almost always accepted by the central leadership. Likewise in the BJP, on issues that are of crucial importance, the top echelons appear to play a decisive role.

Furthermore, family rule has been a striking feature of the Congress but it is only fair to note that this is not a monopoly of the Congress. Quite a few political families have sprung up in the recent past, and more are mushrooming. In other words, what began in the Congress now extends to the bulk of party politics. Of the BJP’s elected MPs, 14.49 % in 2004, 19.13% in 2009 and 14.89% in 2014 were dynastic. The BJP had given party tickets to a swing of dynasts in the U.P. Assembly elections.

Evidence from other democracies, however, shows a trend towards greater intraparty democracy, decentralisation and transparency within parties. In Germany, for example, parties are required to meet certain conditions in nominating their candidates to party posts. They have to be chosen by a direct secret vote at both constituency and federal levels. In the U.S., laws were enacted that required the use of secret ballots in intraparty elections. The British Labour Party, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, the Democratic Party in the U.S. and the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada have all seen movements by party activists and by the rank and file to reduce the power of entrenched party elites.

In India, on the other hand, there is no real movement towards democratisation of parties; the selection of candidates, Chief Ministers and office-bearers of party units is usually left to the discretion of a handful of leaders who take decisions behind closed doors. India’s success in consolidating a democratic system of government has paradoxically forestalled pressure for party reform. Taken as a whole, the electoral process is more representative but political parties look a lot like oligarchies. Most parties are subservient to one supreme leader who can impose his/her offspring on the party, and even electoral defeat does not loosen their control or hold over the party. Political parties — with the exception of the Left parties — still refuse to lay down settled and predictable procedures for almost everything they do, from the selection of candidates to the framing of a manifesto.

The biggest weakness of parties

The question of party reform is a pressing one in India. While many argue that intraparty democracy is essential to sustain broader political democracy, this is not a panacea for the numerous problems facing parties. The more significant issue is the lack of institutionalisation and, partly as a consequence, democratisation. The biggest weakness of parties is that they are leader-centric and most leaders are unwilling to institutionalise procedures for the selection of candidates and increase the participation of members in party functioning to prevent elite capture from getting entrenched. As a rule, strong leaders rarely support institutionalisation because it constrains their discretion and personal power. This has proved detrimental to the political system as it impedes the growth of broad-based non-sectarian parties which can effectively articulate and aggregate a variety of interests. This is a major challenge facing the party system because party activity driven by partisan mobilisation lies at the root of much of the schism and disruption of Indian politics today.

Another aspect is the reduction of party organisations into election-winning machines, which depend for their success on the charisma of the leader and their capacity to win elections. Winning elections has become the only role a party envisages for itself. The privileging of elections at the expense of other aspects of the democratic process implies that parties are inattentive to the need for constant organisational change and renewal. Leaders are valued for their capacity to attract crowds and raise funds as elections become more and more expensive.

The opacity of political financing, necessitates ‘unhindered top-down control’ and ‘absolute loyalty down the line’, argues political scientist, E. Sridharan. If party funds are raised and controlled centrally, this weakens the State units and rank and file vis-à-vis the central leadership on a range of issues including leadership selection and nominations for elections. It also discourages democratisation as this would limit their power to accumulate wealth or amass a fortune or promote personal power at the expense of public interest.

Zoya Hasan is Professor Emerita, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2021 11:13:58 AM |

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