A democratic constitution worked by political parties that are run undemocratically is an incongruity. This, however, is the norm in most parts of the Third World. During the struggle for independence from colonial rule, their political parties had a highly centralised governing structure. The high command continued to operate after independence. A parliamentary system necessarily rests on a democratically elected Parliament whose members, while elected on a party ticket, nonetheless have the capacity to dissent. Prime Minister Theresa May discovered this on December 13, 2017, when her government suffered a major defeat as rebels from her own Conservative Party allied with the Labour Party and other Opposition parties to push through an amendment to Brexit legislation, the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, in the House of Commons.
The rebels were led by a former attorney general, MP Dominic Grieve. Another rebel, MP Anna Soubry, talked of “the ability of those of us in this place, acting on behalf of our constituents, to change some of the drift of the negotiations, to get a deal that suits everybody in our country”. The amendment was passed with 309 MPs supporting the motion and 305 opposing. It was a close shave. The government could have fallen if three more MPs had joined the rebels. Particularly noteworthy was Ms Soubry’s remark that they were acting on behalf of their constituents — not the party bosses.
MPs acting independently are a rarity.
In Britain, political parties are organised constituency-wise. Candidates for election to the Commons are elected by the constituency party after going through an elaborate procedure; though not without an overriding veto by the central leadership, however rarely exercised. There have been instances of a rebel MP securing a mandate for re-election as the party’s candidate, on its ticket, despite opposition from the party’s leader in the Commons. Thus, the MP has the capacity to rebel. This requires the government to also persuade its supporters in the Commons. It cannot take them for granted. The chief whip keeps in touch with them and reports to the leader.
Margaret Thatcher fell because the whip told her she would be defeated in the election to the party leadership. In 1965, Edward Heath ousted Alec Douglas-Home as leader. In 1975, Thatcher defeated Heath; in 1979, a stalking horse challenged her and demanded a poll. She wisely resigned as Prime Minister. Only 48 letters from 15 per cent of Conservative MPs can trigger a leadership poll. Her successor, John Major, sensing a revolt, forced an election that he won, retaining his premiership.
In India, the BJP is run by the RSS, which not only provides the cadres and the muscle during elections but also seconds its officials to serve as secretaries in the BJP. The Congress has been run by a leader without following democratic norms. In both parties, the party ticket to candidates for elections to Parliament and the state Assemblies is awarded by the “high command” in New Delhi. The person so chosen lacks not only the will but the very capacity to rebel. He is a political bondsman who supports the party obediently in the legislature. Parliamentary democracy, established by the Constitution, goes for a toss. In no other democracy are its political parties run by unelected party bosses as an oligarchy, if not worse. They collect the funds, nominate the candidates and ensure their obedience in Parliament.
A noteworthy model for emulation is Germany’s Parteiengesetz, the Political Parties Act. It comprises 41 articles divided into seven chapters, dealing with internal organisation; nomination of candidates; public financing (reimbursement of election campaign expenses); presentation of accounts; and miscellaneous provisions. It obligates political parties to maintain a written constitution, rules and programmes. The rights of members are defined. Free elections to party organs are mandatory.
Parties’ executive committees must be elected at least every second calendar year. The party executive and representatives to assemblies of delegates must be elected by secret ballot. Likewise, party candidates for election to Parliament must be elected by secret ballot by the party. Besides, the related federal electoral law lays down that a party’s candidate must be elected in an assembly of party members in his constituency. It is thus not open to any cabal or party boss to hand out party tickets to persons whom they select as candidates for election to legislatures. However, one is not sure that one is not taking a rather legalistic view. Surely, it is not a matter of the rules. The rules flow from a certain political culture, and a certain political outlook. Society itself must be democratic. India’s feudal past lingers still, which is why its political class clings to its archaic system. What is needed is not a change in the rules, welcome as that would be, but a change in outlook.