Not Quite, Commissar…


At the outset of this blog, let me put in two disclaimers — the initial reference to a political figure is only to acknowledge his title and authorship of the blog post quoted here and his mention in no way represents a departure from the policy of this blog site to defer from discussing (or dissecting) personalities but to analyse only trends and tendencies in social, economic and political behaviour. Having got this mea culpa out of the way, let me jump into the discussion in right earnest.

The BJP leader Arun Jaitley’s blog of 23 March 2014 on his website states “Membership of political party is a privilege. It is also an act of self-oppression where personal views and ambitions are subjected to the collective wisdom of the party. At times, the party may flood leaders with privileges and positions. On other occasions, the leader may have to take “no” as an answer to his desires. How does a politician or a leader react to such “no”? He must accept the decision with a smile. This becomes a test of his loyalty and discipline.” The use of the term “self-oppression” which reeks of repression (even if by one’s own self) makes one wince given that one always thought that human endeavour in all areas (including political activity) seeks to give fullest expression to human individuality and creativity. There is also the term “collective wisdom of the party” which echoes the sentiments of a Stalinist-era Commissar. In fact, words like “collective wisdom”, “the party”, “loyalty” and “discipline” fit in far better with the vocabulary of the former Soviet or the Chinese Communist Party rather than of a party functioning in a noisy, vibrant democracy like India.

But although Indian political parties function in a democracy, they are not democratic in their inner functioning and processes. Even the venerable Indian National Congress was not immune to this charge right from pre-independence days. The basic cause lies in the readiness of political workers to rally behind the vote-getting charisma of a leader and to be willing accomplices in the centralisation of party power so long as their interests (and those of their kith and kin) are looked after. The recent murmurings in many parties and the bed-hopping that has started in real earnest are reflections of thwarted desires and ambitions, as Jaitley has rightly observed. The problem, however, lies in the lack of institutionalisation of democratic processes in party functioning.

Take the issue of candidate selection for any poll in India, from village panchayat to Parliament. The United States has its primaries (however flawed) and the United Kingdom has its local constituency committees, which select party candidates, either themselves or from a centrally approved list. In India, there is little or no transparency in the method of selection of candidates. In most cases, names of candidates handed down by the party high command have to be accepted at the local level with little or no dissent being tolerated. While there are cases of locally popular candidates making it to the final list,  there are also many instances of wards of powerful party functionaries, crony business associates and financiers and musclemen making it as the official candidates. This has not only promoted nepotism in and criminalisation of party politics but has also created a vast underclass of embittered, disgruntled political workers, who are vulnerable to the appeal of any sectarian, authoritarian outfit that can hold out a promise to them of their day in the sun. Established national political parties in India have suffered on this count at the hands of regional parties, which today hold the power of life and death over their survival in office, almost always at the cost of good economics and politics.

The awareness of their charismatic hold on the electorate, at least in the short-run, has bred a class of highly authoritarian leaders in India. They feel no sense of accountability to institutions of democracy. Indeed, leaders arraigned on charges of corruption in recent years have held themselves accountable to the “court of the people” rather than to the judicial process, as though victory in elections can cleanse them of all sins committed while holding public office. Such leaders, like Louis XIV of France, can claim “I am the state.” What is even more noticeable over the years is the tendency of subordinates of these leaders to turn a blind eye to every transgression of public ethics on the part of their leader and resort to abject submission even when they know in their heart of hearts that a policy inimical to public interest or which violates the norms of good, sensible governance is being followed…the days of a Rajaji or a Feroze Gandhi seem very far away indeed!

This sycophancy has led to a serious erosion of legislative responsibility. By definition, legislators are law makers. However, since the only motivating force is the display of loyalty to the party (and by inference, the leader), there is little incentive for the legislator to make a mark through excellence in debate or contributing to framing of effective laws. The Anti-Defection Law has only worsened the problem with legislators having little or no room to question policies of their party, leave alone voting against the party on issues where their convictions clash with the official party position. Little wonder then that anarchy prevails with uproarious scenes in the state legislatures and Parliament being the rule rather than the exception.

The inherent assumption in the Jaitley blog quoted above is that it is the party that has the right to thrust a candidate on the electorate, never mind their wishes or aspirations. When all major political parties adopt this principle, the voter is left with a Hobson’s choice. Low voter turnouts at elections are a natural corollary. Even the introduction of NOTA (None Of The Above) as an optional choice to voters does not solve the basic problem; when candidates are not thrown up from the people, TINA (There Is No Alternative) will always triumph over NOTA. The casualty here is democracy: when my representative from the village panchayat to Parliament is not of my choice and, knowing she is not beholden to me, can largely ignore me for five years, why will I show any interest in taking an active interest in public issues? The urban anger manifested in the last three years is a reflection of the perception of the Aam Aadmi that no party cares for her interests and no elected representative truly wants to help resolve her problems of day to day existence. It needs to be clearly understood: the candidate exists not for the party, but for her electorate; the political party is only a medium for the right person to sincerely and strongly represent her constituency in whichever political forum she is elected to.

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Dilip on April 2, 2014 at 11:55 pm

    It is treat to read your thoughts.


  2. Dear Ramani Sir,

    I agree, wholehearedly with your concern about democractic process. You have rightly identified the cause of urban apathy in voting. However, when the choice of community is also based on their need for messiahs and not a representative, it jeopardize the democratic process. ‘She would do for me or us.’ And, not she would say on the floor what we want her to say. Looking at the manifestoes this time, some parties have talked about Universal Health Care without in anyway speaking what people really want health care’s Universality! Dr Ambedkar had always said that the public must be taught to be democratic. His three pronged approach – Learn, Organize and Struggle although addressed Dalits, had a message for every citizen of India. Benjamin Franklin, when he came out from the Philadelphia Convention, he was asked about the form of government the America would have, he said,” A republic, if you can keep it.’ With civics becoming a disappearing subject from the schools, when student’s unions becoming extensions of political parties, this process of democratization which started at the nascent stage of our republic has dampened. Lots of reforms are required in our civic life to make it a real republic.

    Dr Dhruv Mankad


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