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Is There Intra-party Democracy in Indian Political Parties?

To what extent do political parties in India practice intra-party democracy in their functioning? Ruchika Singh ​ ​analyses important aspects of the internal functioning of political parties — the process of choosing candidates, distributing tickets for contesting elections, and the process of holding internal elections for various posts.

In the run up to the Lok Sabha 2014 elections, the poor status of intra-party democracy in the distribution of tickets and candidate selection comes to the forefront repeatedly. Candidates from various parties are switching over to other parties and parties are welcoming such defectors warmly. Ramesh Chand Tomar, who was given a ticket by the Indian National Congress (INC) to contest from Gautam Budh Nagar parliamentary constituency, joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) several days after the last date of filing nominations for the constituency. It is interesting to note that Tomar, a former BJP Lok Sabha member from Ghaziabad, had joined the Congress some years ago after defecting from the BJP. He is the second such leader to join the BJP after being nominated as the Congress candidate for the upcoming elections. Bhagirath Prasad joined the BJP a day after he was named the Congress candidate from Bhind parliamentary constituency in Madhya Pradesh. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidate Praveen Kumar (famous for playing the role of Bheem in B.R. Chopra’s Mahabharata ) contested from Wazirpur assembly constituency in the Delhi Assembly Elections and lost. In the run up to the Lok Sabha elections, he declared his support for Kapil Sibal, the INC candidate from Chandni Chowk parliamentary constituency, and then defected to join the BJP. Only until a few days back, most of these candidates were voicing strong opposition and were criticising both the manner of functioning and policies of the parties they have defected to.

The lack of transparency in ticket distributions by political parties is also manifesting into a public slugfest between the party and the candidates. Jaswant Singh, a former Union Cabinet Minister and senior BJP leader was denied a ticket from his home seat, Barmer (Rajasthan), from where the BJP has fielded an import from the Congress, Sonaram Chaudhary. Jaswant Singh, after being expelled from the party, is now contesting as an Independent candidate. According to media reports, another senior BJP leader, Murli Manohar Joshi, had to give up his seat in Varanasi reluctantly to make way for BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. Joshi is now contesting from Kanpur parliamentary constituency.

Lalu Prasad Yadav’s man Friday, Ramkirpal Yadav, was luckier. He registered his dissent about Yadav’s daughter Misa Bharti being given a ticket from his constituency. He was at least offered the seat back by Misa Bharti. However, in the end he joined hands with the BJP. These examples are enough to make voters wonder how tickets are distributed within political parties and if there is any internal democracy in the candidate selection process.

The absence of intra-party democracy has contributed to political parties becoming closed autocratic structures with increasing fragmentation within parties, selection of poor electoral representatives and growing criminalisation and abuse of financial power in elections. The roots of the most pertinent challenges faced by Indian politics today can be traced to the lack of intra-party democracy in candidate selection and party elections.

Criminalisation of Indian Politics

As there is no well-defined process for the distribution of tickets to candidates before elections, tickets are given to candidates on the vague concept of winnability. This has led to an additional problem of candidates with criminal backgrounds making forays into the Lok Sabha and State Assemblies. By virtue of money and muscle power, they have become winnable candidates and political parties are not shy about giving tickets to them. According to the data analysed by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), there are 162 Members of Parliament in the 15th Lok Sabha with criminal cases pending against them . The table below presents an analysis of the Members of Parliament (MPs) with pending criminal cases who were given tickets by all major parties in elections to the Lok Sabha held in 2004 and 2009. As can be seen all major parties do routinely give tickets to candidates with criminal backgrounds.

The Election Commission of India (ECI) and other commissions on electoral-political reforms including the Goswami Committee on Electoral Reforms (1990), the Vohra Committee Report (1993), the Indrajit Gupta Committee on State Funding of Elections (1998), the Law Commission Report on Reform of the Electoral Laws (1999), the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (2001), the Election Commission of India – Proposed Electoral Reforms (2004) and the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (2008) in India, have repeatedly suggested disbarring candidates with criminal cases from contesting elections. Political leaders from various parties also raise this issue every now and then. In 2010, during the conference to celebrate the diamond jubilee of the ECI, Sonia Gandhi, President, INC, said, “We also need to build a consensus on how to prevent individuals with a criminal record from contesting elections.” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, at the same function, said, “The background of many contestants, and quite often the winning ones, does not inspire confidence in voters”. In a similar vein, Sushma Swaraj from the BJP, who is also the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, and leaders of all major parties asked for barring candidates with criminal backgrounds from contesting elections.

However, except for a few such candidates being denied tickets after a public outcry, there does not seem to be much change in this practice by political parties.

Dynasty and Indian Politics

The lack of intra-party democracy has also contributed to the growing nepotism in political parties. For the MPs in the 15th Lok Sabha, there is a direct relationship between age and links to a political family. Patrick French in his book ‘India: A Portrait’ has presented extensive analyses on dynastic politics. All MPs below the age of 30 in the 15th Lok Sabha are from political families. Additionally, all 11 Congress MPs below the age of 35 years are hereditary MPs. Dynasty is again at the forefront in the ongoing ticket distribution process. With senior party leaders fielding their sons, daughters and nephews in the coming Lok Sabha elections, the succession plans for “family” constituencies are being put in place. When P. Chidambaram declined to contest in the Lok Sabha elections this year, the obvious choice for Sivaganga constituency became his son Karti P. Chidambaram.

This practice is not just limited to the INC. Jayant Sinha, former Union Minister, Yashwant Sinha’s son, is contesting from his constituency in Hazaribagh on a BJP ticket; Dushyant Chautala, son of Ajay Chautala and grandson of former Haryana Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala, is contesting from Hisar on an INLD [Indian National Lok Dal] ticket and Geetha Shivarajakumar, daughter of late S. Bangarappa, former Chief Minister of Karnataka, is contesting on a JD(S) [Janata Dal (Secular] ticket in Shimoga, Karnataka. Abhishek Singh, the son of Chhattisgarh’s Chief Minister, Raman Singh, is contesting on a BJP ticket from Rajnandgaon; Chirag Paswan, son of LJP’s [Lok Janskhakti Party] Ram Vilas Paswan, is contesting from Jamui, Bihar and Sushmita Dev, daughter of Santosh Mohan Dev, seven times former Member of Parliament, is contesting from Silchar, Assam. There are many more examples like this all over India involving all parties. With senior politicians ensuring that the power in a constituency remains with one family, how can political parties ensure that the best candidates get tickets to contest elections and represent people in the parliament?

Internal Elections in Political Parties

The Representation of People Act, 1951, was amended in 1989 to include Section 29, which deals with the provisions for registration of political parties with the Election Commission of India. Section 29 (A) (9) dealing with the internal elections states, “after an association or body has been registered as a political party as aforesaid, any change in its name, head office, office-bearers, address or in any other material matters shall be communicated to the Commission without delay.”

The Election Commission sent a letter in April 2011 to all political parties asking them to send details of the internal organisational elections held in the parties. An analysis of the data received by the Election Commission of India for internal elections held in the six national political parties by the author provides a dismal picture. The data presents an incomplete picture as the parties have been merely providing the number of delegates who attended the session, the office bearers elected (name and posts) and the date for the next elections. The data does not provide detailed information on the nature of elections such as close ballot or unanimous nomination and election, how many delegates voted for which positions and who were these delegates. The details are provided in Table 2 below:

As can be seen from the table, hardly any information about internal elections is provided to the Election Commission. The judiciary has also taken note of the lack of intra-party democracy within political parties and the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court has issued a notice to the ECI in February 2014 seeking its reply on the internal elections held in the political parties in response to a Public Interest Litigation.

Intra-Party Democracy: Recommendations for Indian Political Parties

A number of committees set up to suggest electoral political reforms have recommended introduction of intra-party democracy mechanisms in recruitment of members and candidates; elections for important party posts such as secretary, treasurer and president; consultations with party members on deciding party agenda; fund raising and spending and providing opportunities for young politicians to climb hierarchy ranks.

The 170 th report of the Law Commission of India on reform of electoral laws, dedicated an entire chapter on the necessity of providing laws relating to internal democracy within parties. It states, “If democracy and accountability constitute the core of our constitutional system, the same concepts must also apply to and bind the political parties which are integral to parliamentary democracy. It is the political parties that form the government, man the Parliament and run the governance of the country. It is therefore, necessary to introduce internal democracy, financial transparency and accountability in the working of the political parties. A political party which does not respect democratic principles in its internal working cannot be exposed to respect those principles in the governance of the country. It cannot be dictatorship internally and democratic in its functioning outside.”

The report from the National Commission for Review of Working of Constitution states that, “The Commission recommends that there should be a comprehensive legislation [may be named as the Political Parties (Registration and Regulation) Act], regulating the registration and functioning of political parties or alliances of parties in India”.

Politics is inseparable from political parties as they are the prime instruments for the execution of democracy in the country. The selection of candidates, the mobilisation of the electorate, the formulation of agendas and the passing of legislation are all conducted through political parties. They are the only organisations in the country that seek, compete for, and acquire power over state apparatus, control over public funds, government bureaucracy and legislative mechanisms. It is therefore surprising how little has been done to strengthen the processes of institutionalisation of intra-party democracy in political parties in India. It is imperative that political parties open their eyes to growing calls for electoral political reforms and take steps towards bringing in intra-party democracy.

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