When strong men strangle internal democracy
On July 7, Boris Johnson stepped down as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Johnson had led his party, the Conservatives, to a landslide victory in the 2019 general election, but was only able to complete half of his five-year term. Like most former British colonies, India inherited the British model of parliamentary democracy from Westminster. Unlike in the UK, it would be fanciful to imagine a charismatic prime minister’s party colleagues forcing him to resign mid-term.
“India’s boast of being the largest democracy in the world, and multi-party at that, hides an obvious truth – the absolute lack of internal democracy in India’s party system,” says political commentator Prakash Patra.
As political scientist Zoya Hasan has pointed out, Indian politicians also insist on “party reform,” which has invigorated Western democracies.
The BJP, from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to descendants – not so long ago communists and socialists were too – blames the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in Congress for some of these ills. For 40 of the 75 years since independence, a member of this dynasty has been the president of the Indian National Congress, almost always elected unopposed, stifling all dissent.
Despite consistent electoral setbacks since 2013, ad hocism continues unabated in Congress. Every other day, Congressional headquarters publishes the names of party workers appointed to various positions, either in its state units or in the national office. “It’s a centralized one-stop system for deciding nominations, coming from a single source, with a fairly opaque consultation process,” said a party leader, lamenting that despite his resignation in As party leader, Rahul Gandhi and his coterie continue to lead the party.
But are the other parties, especially the BJP, any better? “Of all the parties, the BJP had more internal democracy, but not anymore, which should worry them,” said political analyst Radhika Ramaseshan. The BJP, she said, held internal elections every three years from the bloc level upwards, where competing interests and groups were seriously contested. The process resulted in factionalism, but also strong leadership with a grassroots support base, which kept the organization vibrant. “I don’t see that happening under the current regime,” Ramaseshan says.
However, as Hasan and others have pointed out of the BJP, all of its presidents since 1980, the year of its founding, have been elected unopposed. The Nagpur-headquartered RSS men picked or appointed the BJP leader, at least until Modi cut them after 2014, getting associates Amit Shah and JP Nadda elected unopposed to the post in the last few years. last eight years.
But the party also seems to have forgotten to organize other internal elections. The BJP’s national executive, replenished every three years, has not been reshuffled since Nadda became president in 2020 and is nearing the end of his term. It would be interesting to see if the BJP holds its internal elections before appointing its new president next year or giving Nadda another three-year term. “This decline in internal democracy is entirely due to the party becoming personality driven and the processes set out in the party constitution not being followed,” Ramaseshan said.
“If the Indira Gandhi years stifled the internal democracy Congress had until then, the BJP is now experiencing a similar process under Narendra Modi,” Patra said. Just as Indira did for Congress in the 1970s and early 1980s, Modi’s charisma offers massive mandates to his party. Indira ran a powerful PMO (Prime Minister’s Office), as did Modi, undermining the cabinet system of collective power and responsibility. Likewise, she appointed chief ministers without consulting the relevant congressional state unit. A similar process was seen with the appointment of BJP CMs in Haryana, Jharkhand and Himachal Pradesh.
The process of diminishing internal democracy within the party had begun before Indira.
In 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister of newly independent India, was still treated as the first among equals in Congress. With the help of Sardar Patel, he found it necessary to rid the party’s top job of JB ‘Acharya’ Kripalani. The president of Congress in 1947, Kripalani, a Gandhian and a critic of Nehru’s policies, was released the following year. Ironically, in 1950, Nehru adopted Kripalani as his candidate for election as President of Congress against Purushottamdas Tandon. Nehru abhorred Tandon, a Hindu revivalist, who, with Patel’s support, won the election in August 1950. Patel died in December of that year, and with no intermediary between the two, relations soured between Nehru and Tandon. Nehru quit the Congressional Working Committee to force the rest of the leadership to choose between Tandon and himself. In September 1951, Tandon resigned and Nehru, the Prime Minister, was elected President of Congress, remaining in office until 1954. Indira became President in 1959, and after a decade and a triumph over party veterans later , the Indian National Congress literally turned into the Indira Congress.
Around the same time, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, a former congressman, founded the Bharatiya Jana Sangh in 1951. Mookerjee died in 1953 and Mauli Chandra Sharma, who like Mookerjee was not a swayamsevak, succeeded him. The troubles between the RSS and Sharma started when he refused to accept a draft list of office bearers drawn by Nagpur. The RSS asked a young Deen Dayal Upadhyay to force Sharma out of the party. Sharma resigned a year later but released his resignation letter to the press, accusing the RSS of interfering in party affairs. He claimed that even Mookerjee was “seriously disturbed” by the RSS demands in the appointment of officers. Since then, the RSS has become the arbiter of arm wrestling within the Jana Sangh, or later the BJP. It is a role the Gandhi family believes they play in and for Congress, making it inviolable if the party is to survive.
The flip side of intra-party democracy in the Indian context is the case of socialists. Led by Acharya Narendra Dev, Kripalani, Ram Manohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan, the caucus left Congress after Gandhi’s death and swore by intra-party democracy. But internal elections almost always meant that the defeated faction formed its own party, only to come together and split again a few years later, dissipating political capital.
According to some studies, notably by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), the leader-centric party system in India has contributed to further criminalization of politics. Almost half of current Lok Sabha members (43%) have criminal charges against them, which is a 26% increase from 2014, according to ADR. Similarly, a party’s lack of internal democracy complements the opacity of political financing.
Over the years, commissions and committees have recommended “party reform” to implement processes that institutionalize party democracy.
But as the example of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), India’s most successful political start-up, shows us, no Indian politician would want to be in Johnson’s shoes. The AAP initially promised a collective leadership model but was quick to project Arvind Kejriwal as its supremo once he won the Delhi Assembly elections, ridding the party of potential critics and rivals.