Ensuring democracy
H.K. DUA, Editor-in-Chief
Reform of Parliament
Subhash C. Kashyap
Parties in disarray
Pratap Bhanu Mehta
Judicial independence
Fali S. Nariman
Responsive governance
N. N. Vohra

Fighting corruption
N. Vittal

Criminalisation of politics
B.G. Verghese
Strategic vision
K. Subrahmanyam
India’s global role
M.K. Rasgotra
Neighbours and friends
S.D. Muni
Economic roadmap
Pranjoy Guha Thakurta
Energy for progress
S. K. Sharma
New agriculture
S. S. Johl
Save the cities
Water use and waste
Ramaswamy R. Iyer
Science in the 21st century
R. A. Mashelkar
Lessons in education
K. N. Pathak
Empowering women
Mrinal Pande
Problem of numbers
Ashish Bose
How to protect environment
Darryl D’Monte
Health of the nation
Usha Rai

Tackle disarray, factionalism

Pratap Bhanu MehtaPratap Bhanu Mehta

is a currently fashionable view that India’s diversity will necessarily entail a large number of political parties. In this view, a two- party system is a product of peculiar historical circumstances that may not be applicable to India. Rather than lament the fact that we do not correspond to a classic two-party model, we should recognise the fact that India’s diversity will entail a party system that is truly its own.

But the core assertion, that the number of political parties has some relationship to India’s diversity, bears more critical examination. We have lots of political parties and a good deal of social diversity. But it is too quick to assume that one causes the other. Indeed, as we shall argue below, the internal organisational weaknesses of our political parties make our democracy less effective.

If we were a little self-critical about our democracy, the proliferation of political parties would strike us more as a paradox than as a necessity. The paradox is that the number of political parties has no bearing on the diversity of views represented. Most observers think that most political parties in India are more like each other on many measures. The ideological differences between most parties are minimal and they are likely to adopt the same mix of policies when in power.

Parties must ensure that elections are contests over different ideologies.
FINDING STRENGTH IN DIVERSITY: Parties must ensure that elections are contests over
different ideologies. — Photo by Mukesh Aggarwal

Even on secularism, the one defining difference between political parties, the differences are less stark. The Congress in Gujarat is less different from the BJP in Gujarat, and when it comes to Shivaji and Savarkar, the Congress and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra can band together. Ninety per cent of the legislators in any party could, by their ideological leanings, be in any other party. Except for the left parties, none of the smaller parties have real ideological compunctions about allying with anyone else, if their interests require.

Diverse views

It is true that the political parties represent different social cleavages, but even here, it is easy to exaggerate their differences. No political party will openly oppose populist policies like reservations and their agendas for different social constituents end up looking the same. Therefore, the proposition that the diversity of parties is either entailed by India’s diversity or entails an expression of diverse views is simply not tenable.

Indeed, our political parties seem to also be similar in their style of functioning. Most are based on loyalty to leaders rather than loyalty to causes or institutions. Very few have properly institutionalised norms of recruitment and membership. And none has any real intra-party democracy. We ought not to worry about the number of parties, but we should worry about the manner of their functioning.

Democracy performs its most salient functions through parties. The selection of candidates, the mobilisation of the electorate, the formulation of agendas, the passing of legislation—are all conducted through parties. Parties are, in short, the mechanisms through which power is exercised in a democracy.

But lack of intra-party democracy produces adverse outcomes for Indian democracy. The criteria for the basic decisions any party has to take, ranging from candidate selection to party platform, remain either unclear or are left to the discretion of one or a handful of leaders. The more the discretionary power vested with leaders, the more a political party will depend solely on its leaders for renewal.

This is so for many reasons. First, one of the most important functions of democracy in any setting is epistemic: to allow the free and uninhibited flow of relevant information. The less internally democratic a party, the less likely it is that the relevant information will flow up party conduits. The Congress leadership’s spectacular failure to be attentive to local conditions during the 1970s and 1980s is a recent instance of this phenomenon. Second, if the criteria for advancement within the party are unclear and whimsical, newly-mobilised social groups or leaders are less likely to work within existing party structures and will be more tempted to set up their own. If there are no formal mechanisms to challenge entrenched party hierarchies and regulate conflict within parties, they are more likely to fragment.

Suppose you are a newly mobilised social group and want to pursue the path to power, you can do it either by forming a new party, or through existing parties, by moving up the ladder. In most countries, groups opt to do the latter for a number of reasons. Becoming a dominant player requires an ability to reach out to broader social constituencies and joining existing parties enables this. But new groups will remain in parties only if there are clear and fair rules that allow their advancement. Intra-party elections are one such mechanism. They allow a group or a candidate to say, “If we can convince this group of voters within the party of our views, we get to determine its policies”. But if these rules are not clear, and dependent upon the whim of the top leadership, new and ambitious entrants that carry a social base are more wary of entering parties.

So there are no ideological obstacles to a Mulayam or a Mayawati being in the Congress. But their being there puts them at the mercy of someone else’s leadership. There are no institutional guarantees of fairness. Their prospects become more uncertain because there are no clear rules. Therefore, new constituencies prefer working through new parties rather than joining old ones. Once we got a significant number of parties, it changed the political equilibrium. Now parties have an added incentive to cling on to their little enclaves. With the prospects of coalition governments high, the bargaining power of smaller parties, which might otherwise have been irrelevant, increases. In short, the proliferation of parties has more to do with institutional pathology within parties than with ideological diversity within the country.

Poorly institutionalised intra-party democracy produces more factions. In circumstances where the legitimacy of contending groups within a party is not dependent upon a clearly verifiable and open mandate from within the party, the survival of political leaders depends more on political intrigue than on persuading their followers.


There is no argument against the proposition that we should cherish our diversity. And we should be open to different institutional forms to express it. But the idea that our current party system is about representing diversity is a piece of wishful thinking. The fragmentation of the party system and the prospect of perpetual coalition governments; the weakening of democratic accountability despite high turnover of incumbents; the fact that political parties are unable to transcend their narrow social bases and become parties of principle; the diminishing quality of public deliberation in our politics—all have their roots, less in the failure of the Constitution than in the party structures that have grown under it. These outcomes are, to a considerable degree, produced by poor institutionalisation of intra-party democracy.

If the ethnification of the party system is to be overcome, parties will have to ensure that elections are contests over ideas that voters can critically assess. There is a good deal of deserved self-congratulation about the fact that in recent decades Indian democracy has produced an unprecedented mobilisation of Backward Castes and Dalits. But this self- congratulation has occluded the fact that there is relatively little serious, open and protracted discussion of policy issues. Our political parties resist such discussion; most party leaders are unembarrassingly unaware of their own manifestoes; most members of Parliament seem not to have the foggiest idea about the Bills they voted for or against; and legislative agendas, with the exception of a few high profile and often merely symbolic issues, are seldom the object of contention in electoral politics.

I cannot see any other way of remedying the lack of public deliberation on these issues other than through changing the culture of political parties in India.

In most democracies, parties perform crucial educative functions. Political leaders used to accepting the discipline and sanctity of democratic procedures within their own parties are also less likely to circumvent democracy when in government. Moreover, protracted intra-party primaries have a profound impact on party members. If the party platform is put up for serious contestation within the party, it is more likely that party members will know why their party takes the positions it does. It is also more likely that the battle within parties will become something more of a battle of ideas rather than a race for patronage.

The simple reason for the poor quality of public deliberation in forums like Parliament is this: the rise of leaders within political parties is not, in a single instance, dependent upon persuading party members of the cogency of your ideas. This is partly a result of the fact that within parties there is no such thing as an open and fair contest at almost any level of the party hierarchy. Election campaigns are both too brief and enormous in scope to act as proper forums for protracted deliberation.

In most democracies the groundwork of political education is done within political parties and the more open and democratic their structure the more likely it is that politicians will be better educated on the issues. More effective forms of accountability and deliberation require a pluralisation of the sites at which politicians are held accountable and parties are essential to this process. The current state of our parties is schooling our politicians in arbitrariness, haphazardness, uncertainty and lack of deliberative purpose.

All our political parties are in internal disarray. They are either beholden to individual leaders or they descend into factional fighting. But they have no settled institutional devices for settling crucial issues.

Lack of intra-party democracy impedes proper representation rather than enhances it. By their non-transparency, parties have restricted voter choices rather than increased them. The reasons for the lack of proper intra-party democracy are not hard to understand. Parties are endogenous institutions that adopt certain norms and procedures. The question is under what conditions do parties choose to create democratic rules and procedures in the first place?

Power struggle

The answers turn out not to be very encouraging. Leaders like as much control over their parties as possible. They like to set agendas, select candidates who are beholden to them, and maintain themselves in power. Most leaders have an incentive not to institutionalise settled procedures for challenging their power.

Comparative evidence suggests that even parties of long-standing authority reform themselves very rarely. It took decades to reform the British Labour party’s internal procedures. The Democratic Party in the US stumbled into reforms only in the late 1960s. Since the democratisation of parties is tied to power struggles within, it is not surprising that there have been very few attempts. But this does not mean failure is inevitable. The rank and file will have to insist that it is in the long-term interests of the party to institutionalise procedures. Or, alternatively, the internal configurations of power within parties need to be propitious.

Does the remoteness of the prospect that political parties will undertake to reform themselves mean that intra-party democracy should be legislated into existence? Certainly, comparative evidence again suggests that state regulation is often necessary for party reform. In Germany, parties have been required to meet certain conditions in nominating their candidates. Candidates have to be chosen by a direct secret vote of members of the party at both constituency and federal levels. If the party’s management committee objects to a list so chosen, a second vote is held and the results are final.

In the American case, first, laws were enacted that required the use of secret ballots in intra-party elections. Laws laying down the qualifications for party membership followed these, in turn followed by statutes specifying the administrative structure of parties, till finally the direct primary was instituted. It is true that in the American system, in some states, minor parties are not required to comply in the same way as major parties with the legal structures imposed upon them.

If there is legal mandating of intra-party elections in India, we will have to carefully examine the advantages and disadvantages of different nominating procedures. There is a whole range of procedures available that would repay careful study which cannot be undertaken within the confines of this paper. It may be the case that parties can be given wide latitude in setting up their own voting procedures, so long as they are recognisably democratic. But the bottom line is that you cannot have a genuinely democratic polity without democratic parties.

— The writer is President, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.