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Mainstream, VOL LX No 30, New Delhi, July 16, 2022

Political Parties and 75 years of Indian Democracy | P.S. Jayaramu

Friday 15 July 2022


by P.S. Jayaramu *

5th July, 2022

Indian Parliamentary democracy is in its 75th year. While many things can be said about its positive aspects there are equally powerful arguments about the debasing of the system like the steep decline in the functioning of the Parliament as well as State legislatures manifested in frequent disruptions in the functioning of the Houses, dharnas, opposition members walking into the the well of the House, governments getting Bills passed in the din of the House etc. While the working of Parliamentary system itself can be a topic for analysis, my concern here is to scrutinise the role played by the Political Parties in our Parliamenrary system.

Some preliminary observations are in order. Political Scientists have generally categorised Parties into Cadre Parties, (Communists and BJP to a great extent ) Mass Parties, (like the Congress party), and regional parties which have emerged and are in operation dependent on certain dominant leaders, like the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha, the TMC in West Bengal, the Shiv Sena in Maharastra, the Janata Dal (S) in Karnataka, the AAP in Delhi, The DMK in Tamil Nadu, the TRS in Telangana, to name only a few.

It is significant to note that theoretically speaking, India has a multi-party system in operation at both the national and states levels, though in the last two decades we have come to witness a bipolar contest for power between major parties like the Congress and the BJP, with others contesting with them in a coalition or joining them as post-poll alliance partners. Ex:Congress-led UPA and BJP-led NDA. For tbe sake of record, we have 2858 Political Parties registered with the Election Commission, of which 07 are national parties and 54 are state parties, and 2797 are unrecognised. ( Source: ECI data dated 23rd September, 2021)

Against the above setting, let me briefly identify the positive and negative features of our Political Parties in the last 75 years.

 Some of the Positives are as follows:

1 Political Parties have participated in elections at the national and state levels, by and large peacefully, and change of governments too have been smooth, though in recent times, government formation has been unduly delayed in some States due to fractured mandate leading to horse trading and ‘resort politics’. Occasional poll violence are witnessed in some instances.

2. Political Parties have partially successfully played their role as ruling and opposition parties in the functioning of our Parliamentary democracy.

3. The rise of Parties have been most often to represent the social and regional diversities local identities and ambitions of particular leaders, sometimes, charismatic.

Some of the main negatives of our Political Parties are:

1. India saw the operation of one-party dominance system (OPD system as Prof. Rajni Kothari described it) practised by the Congress Party for nearly five decades under Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, resulting in a situation where the Opposition Parties could not play any meaningful role in the operation of the system.

2. Since 2014, and more so since 2019, we have witnessed the OPD system in operation under by the BJP, though it technically heads the NDA Coalition. At its national convention recently in Hyderabad, Home Minister Amit Shah thundered that India would witness the BJP rule for the next 30-40 years! His statement betrays his arrogance as well as his scant respect for what the decisions of the electorate.

3. In the Congress Party, the high command culture developed under Indira Gandhi, with virtually no inner-party democracy. The BJP too is ruled by the Party high command. The regional parties are no exception as they too are controlled by their respective high commands. JD (S), DMK, TRS, TMC, Shiva Sena, NCP, AAP are being virtually ruled by their Party supremos.

4. The ideological content is declining, barring perhaps the Communist Parties and the BJP, which are driven by the ideology of Communism and Hindutva, respectively. It is, however imperative that Parties must locate their ideology within the framework of Constitutional values as embodied in the Preamble, the Fundamental Rights and the Directive Principles of State.

5. Parties have surrendered to supreme leaders - BJP to Modi, Congress to Sonia and Gandhi dynasty, TMC to Mamata, etc.

6. The growing nexus between Political Parties and criminals, resulting in people with criminal background and who are in jail or out on bail, being given tickets for elections.

7. Parties having deep rooted links with business houses is another ugly feature. Electoral bonds issue being an example, where the donors’ identities are not being revealed. Having received huge sums of money as donations, Parties confer benefit on business houses when they come to power.

Against the above broad picture, some of the suggestions that can be made for an improvement of our Political Parties are:

1. Institutionalisation of inner-party democracy is an imperative. The top-down approach must be replaced by bottoms-up approach on all issues ranging from allottment of tickets to the selection of ministers and chief ministers at the state level.

2. Strengthening and broad-basing the socio-economic bases of the Parties. We have seen the decline of the Congress, the grand old party, both in terms of electoral losses and popular acceptance with the Party losing its base—SC, STs have shifted in good number to the BJP, and monorities, specially, muslims, are getting disenchanted with it. In contrast, the BJP has grown phenomenally, both in terms of electoral gains and popular acceptance — SC, STs and OBCs in a big way are gravitating towards it. It is no longer a party of banias and brahmins, though it must be stated that it is destroying the fundamental tenets of Indian secularism through its Hindutva politics resulting in communal polarisation.

3. Regional Parties have grown in importance— Naveen Patnaik and his BJD are invincible. So are DMK and AIADMK who are being voted to power alternatively. TMC, TRS, Shiv-Sena, AAP are also in power. In Karnataka, the JD(S ) has emerged as the king-maker, sharing power with the Congress and the BJP on occasions. While regional parties are a reality, they should be well grounded ideologically and develop national outlook and values if they want to compete for power at the national level.

Finally, the above analysis leads me to argue in favour of reform of Political Parties, broadly on the following lines:

a) Parties must conduct elections to the positions of its Office -bearers, including the President periodically.

b) It is high time the shadow cabinet system is followed, specially by the main opposition in the legislatures. Such a shadow cabinet, at both the central and state levels, should focus on coming up with and publicising alternative policies to those of the ruling Parties when they fail to deliver on their electoral promises. The Opposition can, on such occasions, bring down the ruling regime and form government with its alternative policy packages to people’s problems. Opposition for opposition sake, which is what being practised largely, must be avoided.

c) Orientation of members to the party’s ideology should be initiated by making them undergo necessary training and subjecting them to lectures on the ideological foundations and values of the Party as well as that of Parliamentary practices to which members should strictly adhere to. Violations should invite disciplinary action at the party level itself.

d) Regarding Political recruitment, when new members join parties or when they cross over from other Parties, they should be made to work for the party for a minimum period of five years to be eligible to be given tickets for elections. Such a system, if followed, will bring down and gradually eliminate defections. Are our Parties ready for such bold reform is the key question.

e) Candidates with criminal background where people are out on bail, should strictly not be given tickets to contest elections, at all levels.

f) Parties should reserve 33 percent (or more) of seats for women in elections, no matter when the women’s reservation Bill is passed.

g) Dynastic politics should end in all parties, as for as possible, but such of those elected representatives who have proved themselves successful at the electoral level and have proven governance record may have to be continued with a cap on the upper limit of their being in electoral politics.

h) Grassroots level contacts of elected representatives with their constituents must be strengthened.

I) Performance appraisal of elected members must be mandatorily done by taking inputs from the constituency level in a transparent manner.

Only if the above suggestions are taken seriously by the Political Parties will we be able to see an improvement in the functioning of not only our Political Parties, but also, perhaps, witness a qualitative improvement of Parliamentary democracy. Adhering to the suggestions referred to above is the only way in which our Political Parties can make the 75th year of Indian democracy more meaningful.

* (Author: P.S. Jayaramu is Professor of Political Science (Retd) and former Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi.)

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