Welcome words have been spoken again on India’s party system — this time by the Prime Minister while addressing the concluding function of the UP Vidhan Parisahd Centenary Celebrations in Lucknow last week. Mr. Rajiv Gandhi stressed the need for having two or three strong political parties in the country to strengthen democracy beyond the threat of dilution. Elaborating the point, he is reported to have stated that principles got reduced to superfluity because of multiplicity of political parties. This damaged both the national interest and the democratic process. Expectedly, the statement has evinced keen interest all round. But, as experience has shown, words by themselves are not enough, howsoever laudable. In fact, similar sentiments have been expressed over the past four decades — first by Nehru and thereafter by Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister. Little effort has been made over the years to find an answer to the problem posed: Can something be done in the light of experience elsewhere? If so, what and how?
West Germany has much to offer in curbing the malady of multiplicity of parties — and, indeed, more strengthening the system. During the Weimar Republic, prior to the rise of Hitler, Germany was plagued by a plethora of political parties — and instability. Governments fell like nine pins. In fact, Hitler took advantage of the people’s disgust for uncertainty to abuse the country’s democratic Constitution and its emergency provisions and impose a dictatorship. The end of World War II saw a nationwide reaction against 12 years of Nazi tyranny and a desire for a Constitution which would not only be democratic on the face of it but also guarantee a stable political and economic future. On May 24, 1949, West Germany gave itself the Basic Law which unequivocally states the following vital elements: All State authority emanates from the people. The legislature, the executive and the judiciary are independent institutions. (This separation of power ensures a system of mutual control of power.) The State exists for the sake of the people, not vice versa as in totalitarian States — fascist or communist.
The Basic Law has much to commend itself: public funding of elections and the pragmatic combination of direct election for first-past-the-post and the list system on proportional representation basis. Even more important for India’s immediate need is the incorporation in the system of a simple device to cut down the multiplicity of parties: only parties which command at least 5 per cent of the votes or hold three direct mandates in the Federal Territory can be represented in the Bundestag. This five per cent clause was introduced to prevent splinter groups from entering Parliament and rendering it unable to function as they had during the Weimar era. At the first general election in 1949, eleven parties obtained seats in the Bundestag. This figure fell to seven parties at the next election in 193 and then to five in 1957. Until 1983, only four parties held seats in the Bundestag even though some 20 or so entered the field each time. They are the CDU, CSU, SPD and FDP. In 1983, the Greens made their entry into the Bundestag, taking the total number of parties in the House to five.
We must also ensure that they function in a healthy way. The West German Basic Law takes care of this. There is no scope in it for what may be described as private limited companies or private mercenary armies masquerading as political parties. There is no scope in it either for arbitrary splits, often based on personal, subjective interest and the absurd spectacle of each existing leader starting a new party and claiming himself to be a national leader without even a hundred followers. The West German system has avoided all this through the fundamental provision of a law on political parties. The founding fathers of the Basic Law recognized two vital points. Competing political parties must be enabled to discharge various tasks of political leadership and supervisory functions in a spirit of responsibility and freedom vis-à-vis the nation as a whole. Second, attempt to trust blindly the free play of forces would amount to ignoring the lessons of history and understanding the latent inclination towards monopolisation.
Apart from the Constitution, which sets out the main points of party legislation, the law on political parties (Parteingesetz) has now become one of the most important guidelines to policy formation. Furtheremore, the conduct of political parties is also regulated by relevant provisions in the electoral laws for the Federal Government and the ten Landers (Federal States), the law governing public meetings, the broadcasting legislation and the Civil Code with its general clauses on the composition and statutes of association as well as various tax laws. The law on political parties comprises 41 Articles which are classified under the following seven sections: (i) Constitutional status and functions of the parties; (ii) Internal organization; (iii) Nomination of candidates for election; (iv) Principles and purview of election expenses; (v) Rendering of accounts; (vi) Implementation of the ban on unconstitutional parties; and (vii) concluding provisions on, for example, the introduction of tax relief for donations and party laws. The law grants the parties a legal status and entitles them to parity of treatment from all public authorities.
Importantly, the Law stipulates the various elements of a democratic party organization. These embrace inter alia its administrative structure from the grassroots to supreme bodies, its written statues and programmes, regular party conferences, election of the party organs including in particular the executive committees, the setting up of party courts for arbitration and the rights to be accorded to party members. Expulsion from the party is only possible if a member deliberately infringes the statues or gravely contravenes the principles of rules of the party. Equal importance attaches to rendering public account of the origin of party funds in accordance with various specified categories. Books and statements of account of a party in respect of the origin of its funds are required to be submitted to the President of the Bundestag annually. Parties which fail to comply are barred from getting reimbursement of their election campaign expenses on the basis of votes received. Party candidates for election to Parliament are required to be chosen by secret ballot by the members of delegates elected by them.
Some West German politicians have, over the years, successfully got around the provision relating to rendering public account of the origin of party funds. A major scandal on this score burst upon an unsuspecting West German nation a few years ago. One of the country’s leading industrialists by the name of Mr. Flick, who was once close to Hitler, took advantage of some loop holes in the law to gain colossal tax gains through a quid pro involving direct and indirect funding of political parties. A new law has now been enacted to plug the loop holes and place greater emphasis on what an expert in Bonn described last autumn as “transparency of public financing”. West German political parties are now required to give much more detailed information about the monies received by them and how these have been spent. In fact, the main change relates more to expenses. At the same time, the new law has barred political parties from receiving funds from various Foundations associated with them. If a political party violates the new law enacted in 1984, then twice the amount illegally taken by it is deducted from the funds due to be paid to it by the State for the votes polled.
Stability has been ensured through the provision in the Constitution of a constructive vote of no-confidence used for the first time in the Bundestag in 1982 by the new coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats to topple Mr. Schmidt, leader of Social Democrats, and install Mr. Kohl as the new Chancellor in a historic secret vote. Under the provision, which seeks to make a negative no-trust vote positive, a Chancellor, who has lost the majority, can be brought down in mid-term only if his successor can muster a majority. In other words, Parliamentarians are barred from playing havoc with national stability and interest on the basis of their personal whims or fancies. The founding fathers of the Basic Law were clear that defeating a Government on the floor of the House was not enough in a system with more than two parties. Those seeking a change of Government must simultaneously provide an alternative in the national interest. Adoption of such a constructive vote of no-confidence in India could ensure greater stability in the States and also provide for a situation in which no single party has a clear majority at the Centre.
All the ideas are exciting – and stimulating. If accepted and implemented, we in India could then curb the multiplicity of parties — and also have truly democratic parties and a healthier party system. As I have stated earlier, there would then be no scope for what may be described as private limited companies or personal armies masquerading as political parties claiming to work for the common man and the best national interest when, in fact, they are only serving their own petty interest as in the case of the Pindaries of yester centuries. Almost without exception, none of our political parties can be said to be functioning democratically. True, all the parties have written constitutions. But there is no law to enforce them — little commitment to healthy conventions and traditions as in Britain. The mightiest of all, the Congress-I has not had any organizational election for years. Clearly, India needs what West Germany already has: a device to cut down the number of parties and a law on political parties. There is no other way if we are serious about strengthening our party system and, indeed, our parliamentary democracy. —INFA