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Speaking at the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) Diwali Milan event on Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for a debate on levels of intra-party democracy in different political parties in India. He also stressed that the quality of a democracy ultimately depends on internal democracy (or the lack of it) in political parties. This is certainly a welcome call but one should begin by assessing the importance of intra-party democracy in the success of a democracy. In its 170th report in 1999, the Law Commission of India underscored the importance of intra-party democracy by arguing that a political party cannot be a “dictatorship internally and democratic in its functioning outside".

Political theorists are, however, divided on the question. While many do argue that intra-party democracy is essential to sustain broader political democracy in a country, others claim that political democracy simply allows free choice to citizens from among a set of parties, including non-democratic ones. Giovanni Sartori, a proponent of the latter view, had put it thus: “Democracy on a large scale is not the sum of many little democracies". A clearer answer can perhaps be obtained in the Indian context.

In his remarks, Modi suggested that India witnesses a great number of debates on political and electoral funding but not many on the internal workings of political parties. The distinction between the two issues—of political funding and intra-party democracy—may not be as great as Modi thinks. The opacity of political financing, political scientist E. Sridharan argues, necessitates “unhindered top-down control" and “absolute loyalty down the line". The fear of party fragmentation—not uncommon in India; the country has a large number of Congress and Janata offshoots—also drives the desire for centralized control.

One of the instruments that has been used for ensuring stable and lasting governments is the anti-defection law that was passed in 1985. By making it mandatory for the legislator to vote along her party line, this law has done immense damage to both intra-party democracy and the accountability of a legislator towards her constituency. It also skews the balance of power between the executive and the legislature. The legislator is no longer empowered to act as an effective check on the government of the day.

On the other side, poorly thought-out local area development schemes like MPLADS and MLALADS that vest an annual sum with the members of Parliament and legislative assemblies for development work in their constituencies skew the balance in favour of state and Central legislators at the expense of city- and village-level administrators. Moreover, these schemes unjustly favour the incumbent representative and also exacerbate the problem of patronage politics. As this newspaper has argued earlier, patronage politics lies at the heart of dynastic succession in Indian politics—a result of control of political parties by an oligarchic elite. And as the work of political scientist Kanchan Chandra shows us, dynastic succession also works as insurance against defections and fragmentation of political parties.

The conclusion is simple: Opacity in political financing, fear of fragmentation and unstable governments, dynastic succession, and lack of intra-party democracy are all mutually reinforcing variables. Even if a leader disillusioned with the centralized control in her party goes on to establish a new party, the results are not very different. The Trinamool Congress set up by Mamata Banerjee is the best example. And in case a new set of elites is ushered in, thanks to political movements like the Mandal agitation, they are quick to adapt to the ways of the old elites.

But the biggest problem, without doubt, is with the Indian National Congress. The first attack on the Congress’ intra-party democracy had happened with Indira Gandhi at the helm. But the current leadership of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi has systematically destroyed the regional leadership of the party. Sonia Gandhi is now the longest-serving president of the party, having served in the position continuously since 1998. Nothing could be a bigger indictment of internal democracy in a party than a president who serves for close to two decades without being challenged. While the BJP’s record is better, it too is no beacon of intra-party democracy. It is difficult to imagine a leader challenging either Modi or party president Amit Shah and still retaining a future in the BJP.

What is the way out? Unlike some countries like Germany and Portugal, India has no legal provision for enforcing internal democracy in a political party. There are some related provisions in the Election Commission guidelines but those are neither adequate nor enforceable. In its 255th report in 2015, the Law Commission had suggested some legislative redressal. M.R. Madhavan of PRS Legislative Research has argued for doing away with the anti-defection law, especially for those votes where the survival of the government is not at stake. Madhavan has also made a compelling case for scrapping the MPLADS and MLALADS. Sridharan has called for a partial state subsidy to fund elections and political parties. For good measure, Sridharan has suggested abolishing the MPLADS to finance the state funding of political parties.

There are many options on the table. But all of these will require a willingness by the incumbent political authorities to give up some of their powers. Will they step up to the challenge?

Do we need laws to enforce intra-party democracy in political parties? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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