Last week’s National Anthem fracas saw Narayana Murthy getting roasted by members of the Karnataka state assembly. While the media hype lasted two days, the subliminal irony of the incident will linger. One of India’s great institution builders got taken to the cleaners by politicians who couldn’t spell institution-building if their lives depended on it.
Political parties are the essence of a democracy. They channelize the competing hopes and aspirations of people into a collective energy for change. Elections are fought and won mainly by political parties—independent candidates are no more than comic relief in these democratic dramas. Most importantly, through the electoral processes, parties have access to the entire human and financial resources of government. Even when not in power, political parties influence public policy. Samuel Huntington stated that strong parties are “the prerequisite for political stability in modernizing countries”.
India has many outstanding political leaders who have invested their lives in tackling the nation’s social and economic challenges. But are political parties only agglomerations of individuals, or should they meet a higher bar of being institutions? Leaders and institutions have a symbiotic relationship: They need each other.
A political party mobilizes people, promises them representation, and aspires to to deliver its vision for society by accessing political power. A party’s external work—complex social processes—needs the support of an institution’s internal rhythm—strong business processes. Institutional systems ensure the predictability, fairness and equity that parties need to successfully manage their various stakeholders . Indeed, they cannot practise democracy in the public arena if they don’t practise it within their parties.
How do Indian political parties rate as institutions? Abysmally. Not one of them files audited financial statements. No data on size of membership is publicly available. No decisions are decentralized. There are no transparent rules for candidate selection, nor clear guidelines for the development of policy positions. These are institutions only in word, not deed. Each political apparatus twirls on the whims and fancies of individual leaders.
Why don’t our political leaders build their parties? After all, this isn’t rocket science. Business leaders constantly ponder, “How do we sustain our success, strengthen the institutional fabric, nurture talent and remain relevant to our constituencies?” It can’t be that our political leaders don’t worry about the same issues.
Part of the answer is that India’s current political culture doesn’t incentivize institution-building. It isn’t possible to come clean on finances when illegal funds are sloshing through the system. Personality cults are easier to establish than organizational discipline. Fragmentation and identity politics still allow the tail to wag the dog, however small a particular vote base.
If the parties won’t build robust institutions, the discipline must be forced upon them. If a company wanted an exchange listing, it would have to satisfy Sebi’s conditions—registration under the Companies Act, audited financial statements, disclosure about the board of directors, etc.
In sharp contrast, other than Article 19 of the Constitution which affords the right to form associations, there are no regulations for political parties. Our illiteracy has created some back-door regulation. The Election Symbols Order, 1968, allows the Election Commission to declare a party as a “state party” and allot a symbol if it fulfils certain conditions of longevity and electoral success. Any party satisfying these conditions in four or more states is recognized as a “national party”. We have seven national parties and 48 state parties today. In this distorted political marketplace, we have handed over the keys of our public institutions to this ossified oligopoly.
We urgently need a muscular regulatory environment for political parties. The Election Commission needs to be given more teeth. The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC) strongly recommended “comprehensive legislation [the Political Parties (Registration and Regulation) Act].” Among other things, this would require party accounts to be audited, and open conventions to make leadership selection more “open, democratic and federal”. This five-year-old proposal gathers dust.
Amartya Sen said: “Countries should not become fit for democracy, but become fit through democracy.” Political parties are at the heart of this. All change is path-dependent—we cannot change where we are, only where we are headed. One key step is to start thinking of political parties as institutions, and demand organizational accountability from them. Maybe they could take some tips from Murthy.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Mobius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org