Avowals of democracy within parties don’t add up to much; in fact, these declarations of consultations and compromises are empty of content. That’s true of probably every party that asserts its commitment to defending India’s democracy and finds fault with other parties for failing to do so.
The Congress is not alone in being a party that invariably refers its problems with dissent and differences to the so-called “high command”. The BJP too has set up its own “high command”, which even as it mimics the Congress is also a backhanded compliment to the institutionalisation of a single centre of authority that is autocratic in essence but sidesteps the characterisation by claiming that the controllers consult every other point of view.
If holding regular elections to fill party positions was all that internal democracy meant, then certainly the BJP is a democratic party. Just like the parliamentary Communist parties. If democracy within parties equals open entry at the bottom and a rise based on merit-performance-leadership through the ranks to the very top, the BJP and certainly the Communist parties are robust democratic organisations. Democratic centralism, a fundamental organising principle of Communist parties, is probably the most transparent and consequently accountable mechanism adopted by major political parties in India, regardless of the conventions of criticism heaped on the Marxists for being rigidly hierarchical and centralising authority in a politburo and functioning through a collective leadership routine that can appear excessively controlling but is nevertheless a consultative process.
The choreographed performance of consultation and consensus in the Congress is not a democratic process of decision-making because one outcome is always known; continuity of the Gandhi family at the helm. The party’s endless wait for a final acceptance of the leadership position by Rahul Gandhi is a parody of the democratic process. The abrupt declaration that Sonia Gandhi is the president of the Congress, ending the farce of her interim presidency, isn’t democratic either. The routinely repeated calls for organisational elections and the long drawn out process of holding such elections confirms that whatever else the process may be, it is not democracy within the party. The fact that organisational changes don’t follow a schedule that is as fixed as elections in India, with a final end by date, is the best measure of how very little democracy matters within the Congress.
But the Congress isn’t the only party that violates the basic rules of democratic functioning. The BJP, despite its more or less on time selection of a party president, doesn’t work in democratic ways. The party’s umbilical connection to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the constant transfusion of leaders and workers effectively empties its claim to function democratically. And then there are punitive decisions handed out that corroborate that decision-making in the BJP is not democratic. The removal of both Maneka Gandhi, Sultanpur’s MP, and her son Varun, MP from Pilibhit, from the national executive committee was not democratic at all. Obviously, there was no public statement on the reason for their removal, but it wasn’t difficult to connect the cause to the effect. Varun Gandhi had publicly lashed out after eight people died at Lakhimpur Kheri, including four farmers and a journalist, who were run over by a convoy of speeding vehicles with local BJP bigshots, one of whom was picked up by the Uttar Pradesh police after being ticked off by the Supreme Court. He was unequivocal in condemning what happened; protesters “cannot be silenced through murder” and said that justice must be delivered “before a message of arrogance and cruelty enters the minds of every farmer”. The fact that Ashish Mishra, son of Union minister of state for home Ajay “Teni” Mishra, was named in an FIR should have been reason enough for the BJP to take action against both father and son.
Respecting the right of party functionaries to speak out, criticise, dissent, oppose, hold different opinions, without incurring punishment ought to be the norm rather than the exception. Fixing dissenters by removing them from party posts or even power as has happened in Karnataka or in Punjab, of abruptly changing chief ministers in Uttarakhand — Tirath Singh Rawat lasted 116 days before he was replaced by Pushkar Singh Dhami — are confirmation that political parties despite their commitment to democracy in India have very little commitment to democratic functioning as a fundamental internal requirement for running their outfits. The hire and fire style has everything to do with power being centralised and decisions being taken by an inner circle or the high command.
The Congress and the BJP have no democratic process for mid-course corrections within the organisations. The parliamentary Left or the communist parties, including the CPI(M), CPI as well as the CPI-ML (Liberation), have a more structured and therefore transparent system, where changes between party congresses or state-wise party conferences can be made through a consultative process. But even that is not a fully democratic process of open contest and publicly announced outcomes.
The regional parties or state parties established by a single leader are genetically different. The association of a leader and his/her family with the party is such that the conventional rules of democratic functioning do not apply. That is not to argue that there is no mechanism of consultation, compromise and consensus in these parties. There is, but there are limitations to the mechanism.
The supremo or the netaji takes the final call. In every election, be it for the three-tier panchayats, municipalities or municipal corporations, cooperatives or even school boards, the state Assembly or the Lok Sabha, the risk and the responsibility for the success or the failure of the party is shouldered by the supremo or netaji. The person of the leader is what makes these parties what they are.
The absence of competition and the concentration of power in the person of a leader has converted political parties into autocratic institutions. It is thus unsurprising that these leaders use every means, foul and fair, to control the political space. The use of coercive machinery, including draconian laws to enforce a particular order on all political actors, be it within ruling parties or parties in the Opposition, has been normalised ever since Indira Gandhi weaponised raids by government agencies to squash her critics and the Opposition. The BJP’s use of the punishment and coercion template erases the difference between it and the worst years of the Congress government, when dissent equalled disloyalty to the leader and was considered a sin.