The recent All India Congress Committee elections for the post President, where Mallikarjun Kharge defeated ShashiTharoor, has yet again brought into spotlight the issue of intra-party democracy within political parties in the world’s largest democracy. Whatever the claims of the grand old party and its loyalists are made, there is no denying that the contest wasn’t actually viewed as free and fair. Kharge was seen as the official candidate backed by the powerful Gandhi family while Tharoor was viewed as the outsider.
That many aren’t satisfied with this presidential election is a testimony to the fact that on the issue of intra-party democracy, political parties of the country have a long way to go. After 25 years, elections for Congress president were held and it should have been a historic moment in Indian politics. Instead, this contest was largely seen as a carefully orchestrated event, where ultimately the keys of the party would remain with the Gandhis.
Supporters of the Gandhi family often say that without the Gandhis, the Congress would break up and get divided into many parties. They are not exactly wrong. The Congress structure itself is such that the Gandhi family can’t be disassociated from the power centre. There was a time when it gave fruitful results but in early 2010s the popularity of the Gandhi family brand started declining, coinciding with the rise of BJP’s Narendra Modi. This became amply clear when the party lost the Lok Sabha elections for the second time consecutively in 2019 as the party’s face, Rahul Gandhi, who even lost the family bastion of Amethi constituency, failed to connect with the masses. Despite the electoral drubbing, the Congress is yet to seriously analyse the reasons for its declineand continues to train its guns on Modi and the BJP alone.
Today, the grand old party is in power only in two States —Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh — and is a coalition partner in Jharkhand (not counting Tamil Nadu as all the ministers are from ruling DMK, which has ignored its ally Congress). An assessment of the prevailing situation in the party would show that one of the main reasons is the lack of accountability at the power centre. For most of the failures, the blame rests on the Gandhis. But how can the party blame the Gandhis, who actually control it? Party leaders are well aware that blaming the Gandhis for the current crisis will only leave them isolated within it. Had there been true intra-party democracy, the party wouldn’t have been where it has reached today!
Meanwhile, the current ruling party at the Centre, the BJP, which has been criticising the Congress presidential election, is not really any different. It would do well to introspect on intra-party democracy within itself. True, it is better off than the others but since the rise of Modi and his right-hand man and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, there have been signs of erosion of democracy within the party.
The problem is particularly not with the selection of J.P. Nadda as the BJP President without any elections. But there are some obvious reasons for the party to avoid direct elections for the post of president and rely on consensus — the same process is followed by the communist parties like the CPM. After all, consensus-building process is also a part of intra-party democracy where the opinions of others within the party are also valued. But the allegations that the party President is now reduced to only executing the wishes of Modi and Shah doesn’t bode well for the BJP, which often boasts of being “a party with a difference”. It can’t ignore these allegations.
Modi supporters, as usual, would say that it is because of his popularity that today the BJP has become the new pole of Indian politics, the space once occupied by the Congress. True, Modi is not only the most popular leader of the BJP but also the country, however, it doesn’t mean every decision taken by him is right or would be right.
The recent exclusion of Union Transport Minister NitinGadkari and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan from the BJP parliamentary board, the highest decision-making body, does indicate the consolidation of Modi-Shah within the party. Shivraj is an old-timer and Gadkari had been the party national president before the rise of Modi in national politics and unlike many of the Cabinet ministers, who are only seen singing praises for Modi, is one of the most hard-working ministers. He is also known to be close to the RSS, the ideological parent of the BJP. The exclusion suggests political rivalry within.
Insofar as regional political parties are concerned such as the NC, SP, BSP, RJD, JD(U), BJD, TMC, DMK, TDP, YSR Congress, BSS etc, intra-party democracy is missing too, with most controlled by a single leader or by families. An exception is the Left parties, wherein CPM, the major party, has a system of intra-party democracy where even the national general secretary (equivalent to the post of president) can’t take decisions alone. Sometimes even voting takes place in the party politburo and central committee and there have been incidents where the general secretary’s decision has been rejected. However, it could do better with more openness.
The Left parties speak of accountability at the senior leadership level, however, very often it is seen that dissenting voices are not welcome and this hampers democratic functioning. There have been such incidents, one including the expulsion of Somnath Chatterjee, who was the party’s most respected and popular parliamentarian, from the party after he refused to resign as Lok Sabha Speaker when the Left Front withdrew support from UPA-1 government in 2008. Not only this, the party’s politburo and central committee have often been accused of forcing their views on state party committees in the name of consensus building, which have hurt the CPM electorally too.
This year India is celebrating 75 years of independence and it can’t be denied that tremendous progress has been made—economically, politically and socially. Still, one major gap remains i.e. fair and transparent procedures in selecting leaders within political parties, which eventually may be at the helm of running governments. The country is viewed as the world’s largest democracy but the irony is there’s a big question mark on internal democracy within political parties. This needs regular debate and action. Words would not suffice.