Pragmatic | On reforming political parties

What will it take to reform our political parties?

India’s crisis of governance is a direct outcome of the undemocratic nature of our political parties. From the dysfunctional Parliament to absence of ideological positions to a lack of serious debate on policy details, these adverse symptoms are owed to a basic malaise — lack of inner-party democracy in India.

In India, we have tried to treat the symptoms where the treatment has worsened the malaise. You have an anti-defection law which has ended up further weakening the parliament. You now have the spectacle of Election Commission trying to ringfence legitimate electoral politics by its orders to cover up statues of elephants in public parks. Any solution to India’s many problems — and they will multiply by the day unless we act urgently — will involve reform of political parties. What will it take to reform the political parties?

There is no one better to answer this question than Pratap Bhanu Mehta. Here is an extract from his essay from 2001, Reform political parties first:

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 U.S. stumbled into reforms only in the late ’60s. Since the democratization of parties is tied to power struggles within the parties, it is not surprising that there have been very few attempts at democratization. But this does not mean failure is inevitable. The rank and file of the party will have to insist that it is in the long-term interests of the party to properly institutionalize procedures. Or, alternatively, the internal configurations of power within parties need to be propitious.

For instance, one can imagine conditions of stalemate within a political party where two contending factions are almost equally arrayed in terms of their power, where both lose substantially if one of the factions leaves the party, and where the only mechanism for reconciling the factions is the institutionalization of fair procedures. Under what conditions the contingent set of circumstances that might give parties reasons to reform might arise is therefore hard to predict. It is not surprising that there have been few moves towards seriously institutionalizing reforms of political parties.

Does the remoteness of the prospect that political parties will undertake to reform themselves mean that intraparty 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 intraparty 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 the major parties with the legal structures imposed upon them.

If there is legal mandating of intraparty 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 recognizably democratic. My own view is that one must be cautious in involving the state in India for a couple of reasons.

First, I do not think that despite the desirability of intraparty democracy, only political parties that institutionalize intraparty democracy should be allowed to contest elections. Freedom of association, within limits, on terms that one chooses is an equally important value. There seems to be no normative argument why parties that do not function internally democratically should be banned from the political process. We are free not to vote for them, but we cannot silence their voices. I also suspect that it is more important that the large parties have such procedures because they structure access to power in more significant ways than smaller parties. Smaller parties could be given more discretion.

Second and most importantly, there are grave dangers in giving independent commissions more powers to disqualify political parties. Such commissions ought to insist on and oversee the fact that parties do not violate legal norms. But giving them carte blanche powers to decide when a particular party has held internal elections is both normatively and prudentially unsound. Normatively speaking, parties ought to be self-organizing and their structure ought not to be mandated by the state. Prudentially speaking, can we trust independent commissions to fair arbitrators of the process?

The recent record of the Election Commission has been exemplary, but that may be an artifact of contingent circumstances like the quality of election commissioners we have had. The degree to which a party has organized fair internal elections cannot be easily made clear and giving state bodies wide latitude in interpreting this requirement would be to invite disaster. Imagine the prospect of a major political party being disqualified on the eve of elections because of some technicality pertaining to the way in which it conducted its internal elections. Giving election commissioners powers to disenfranchise parties, no matter how worthy the cause, itself runs serious risks. These risks may not be ultimately decisive, but they should be taken seriously. These issues require more consideration than can be given here.

Reforming parties will be a slow and laborious process. I have not touched on many issues that are important to institutionalizing healthy political parties: the sources of political finance, the criteria for membership and so forth. Any attempts to institutionalize intraparty democracy will have to take them into consideration. Nor is the reform of parties a panacea for all ills. But one thing is clear. The reform of political parties will have to be the focus of our political energies.

The health of democracy requires that we attend to the health of our parties and the party system. Intraparty democracy will prevent fragmentation of parties, make politicians more accountable and enhance the quality of deliberation. The degree to which political parties are willing to countenance grand constitutional experiments without setting their own houses in order ought to be an object of suspicion.[Seminar]

By acting as if reforming the political parties is inconsequential, politicians, public and the media have deflected the attention away from the foremost issue we should be tackling as a polity. The fact that Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote this essay in 2001, but the issue never made it to public debate, is a disheartening pointer to the reality of our public space. There are no short-cuts to reforming political parties. It is a long haul. But at least we need to start. Now.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.