It’s impossible to separate Narayana Murthy from Infosys. Or Azim Premji from Wipro. A great corporate leader is measured by the institution he builds. And yet, surprisingly, we don’t apply the same yardstick when we look at our political leaders—pick anyone. What kind of political parties have they built or strengthened?
Last week, Murthy and Premji co-chaired an eminent panel—mostly business leaders with one exception, civil aviation minister Praful Patel—for awards given out by The Economic Times. An open-house was organized that evening, on the subject of globalization and risks. Interestingly, all the corporate leaders contextualized their comments to their own institutions—HDFC, Hindalco, Citibank, Unilever, and so on. In contrast, Praful Patel’s remarks were about politics and democracy in general, and not related to the political institution he belongs to—the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).
These awards to corporate leaders were for the institutions they had built. However, the one award to a politician—Praful Patel—was for his work as minister, and unrelated to the NCP. We have a collective blind spot in linking politicians to institution-building.
It’s time we enhanced the definition of political leadership beyond just being about empathy or vision or artful negotiation—and of course, this is being generous. No offence to Patel, but let’s ask some tough questions of our senior politicians: what are they doing to nurture talent within their organizations, how are they implementing inner-party democracy, how transparent and accountable are they in the management of funds, how do they define and sustain the institution’s core values?
Why is this important? Because political parties—not individual political leaders—are at the heart of a country’s democratic machinery. Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote: “Most complex democracies are unthinkable without parties. Democracy performs its most salient functions through parties. The selection of candidates, the mobilization of the electorate, the formulation of agendas, the passing of legislation—is all conducted through parties. Parties are, in short, the mechanisms through which power is exercised in a democracy.” Without his party, it’s likely that Patel wouldn’t be minister; he might not even have contested, let alone got elected.
Why don’t our political leaders invest in their parties? Quite simply because it’s not demanded of them. If companies want to access economic capital from shareholders, they have to follow strict regulations laid down by the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi). If political parties want to access political capital from citizens, they don’t have to follow any rules at all—or barely any.
In 1999, a Law Commission Report on Electoral Reforms stated: “Whether by design or by omission, our Constitution does not provide for the constitution and working of the political parties. A parliamentary democracy without political parties is inconceivable. Yet, the Constitution (except the 10th Schedule inserted in 1985) does not even speak of political parties.”
What is the situation in other countries? As an example, Article 21 of the German Constitution is exclusively devoted to political parties. There are rules on membership, internal democracy, selection of candidates through secret ballot and—very importantly— audited financial statements. In contrast, does any of us know the income for any party in India? No wonder corruption breeds like congress grass.
The Law Commission’s recommendations on political party regulations are comprehensive. That was almost 10 years ago. The Sensex was at 5,000, and Infosys’ sales were barely Rs200 crore. Today, our economic engines are at full steam, driven by great private sector institutions, while our political machinery is sputtering with unaccountable political parties—witness the embarrassment in Karnataka.
It’s not surprising that the commission’s suggestions haven’t been implemented. Nobody wants to operate under the constraint of conditions. To add to the challenge, we need the same politicians whose work is to be governed to also set the rules. Imagine the kind of regulator we would have got if the corporate sector were to establish Sebi. So, no point holding our breath for political party legislation.
Unless public pressure increases. Here is a possible market- and media- friendly idea: an annual award for the Best Political Party, measured on a range of parameters: financial transparency, membership rules, candidate selection, HR development, and so on. Given how popular such forums are with politicians, it will be hard for them to weave and duck for long. Over time, we should get a better definition of political leadership—one that is also about building institutions.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org