Reform political parties first


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IT is surprising that in the midst of our current debates over constitutional reform little attention is being paid to the reform of the internal structures of our political parties. While the Law and Election Commissions have often argued for the better functioning of political parties, politicians and the public at large act as if reforming political parties is inconsequential. Many of the anxieties that lie behind the calls for constitutional reform can be more effectively addressed by reforming the structure of our political parties.

The fragmentation of the party system and the prospect of perpetual coalition governments; the weakening of democratic accountability despite high turnover of incumbents; the fact that political parties are unable to transcend their narrow social bases and become parties of principle; the diminishing quality of public deliberation in our politics – all have their roots, less in the failure of the Constitution than in the party structures that have grown under it. These outcomes are, to a considerable degree, produced by poor institutionalization of intraparty democracy.

The lack of attention given to the inner functioning of political parties is surprising. Most complex democracies are unthinkable without parties. Democracy performs its most salient functions through parties. The selection of candidates, the mobilization of the electorate, the formulation of agendas, the passing of legislation – is all conducted through parties. Parties are, in short, the mechanisms through which power is exercised in a democracy. While, thanks to Robert Michels’ classic analysis in Political Parties, few are na•ve enough to believe that the oligarchic tendencies of political parties can be entirely overcome, it is abundantly clear that the ways in which parties structure opportunities has decisive outcomes for democracy.

Atul Kohli has, for instance, argued for the importance of political parties for understanding both governance and land reform. India’s so called crisis of governability was, on this account, a consequence of the decline of the Congress party. And successful land reform requires, as one of its conditions, a leftist cadre based party committed to implementing redistribution. But despite insisting on the centrality of political parties, Kohli’s account paid relatively less attention to the ways in which the internal institutionalization of procedures within a party has an impact on both structuring access to power and the formation of party systems. I will argue briefly that the lack of clear democratic procedures within parties adversely affects the functioning of Indian democracy in numerous ways.

Why does the lack of intraparty democracy produce adverse outcomes for Indian democracy? The poor institutionalization of intraparty democratic procedures means that the internal functioning of parties is not transparent. The criteria for the basic decisions any party has to take, ranging from candidate selection to party platform, remain either unclear or are left to the discretion of one or a handful of leaders. The more the discretionary power vested with leaders, the more a political party will depend solely on its leaders for renewal.



This is so for many reasons. First, one of the most important functions of democracy in any setting is epistemic: to allow the free and uninhibited flow of relevant information. The less internally democratic a party, the less likely it is that the relevant information will flow up party conduits. The Congress leadership’s spectacular failure to be attentive to local conditions during the ’70s and ’80s is a recent instance of this phenomenon. Second, if the criteria for advancement within the party are unclear and whimsical, newly mobilized social groups or leaders are less likely to work within existing party structures and will be more tempted to set up their own. If there are no formal mechanisms to challenge entrenched party hierarchies and regulate conflict within parties, they are more likely to fragment.

Kanchan Chandra, for instance, has argued that the relative lack of intraparty democracy within the Congress in U.P. compared to Karnataka during the ’70s prevented it from incorporating newly mobilized backward caste groups. Because the criteria for entry and advancement were not clear, these groups were driven to form their own parties rather than take over existing ones. Of course, parties can often incorporate new groups without formally open mechanisms, but such incorporation usually depends upon farsighted leadership rather than reliable procedures. The lack of such procedures may have contributed to the fragmentation of the party system.



Comparative evidence from Europe and Latin America also suggests that where intraparty democracy is better institutionalized, there is less likely to be fragmentation of the party system. Our fragmented party system may therefore be as much an artifact of the institutional incoherence of our parties as anything else. It is not an accident that the evolution of stable party systems and the proper institutionalization of intraparty democracy often go together. Comparative research on Latin America, for example, suggests that reform of the internal functioning of parties was crucial for democratic consolidation in many respects.

It is a notorious fact that Indian democracy is becoming less deliberative in more ways than one can list. Not only are institutions like Parliament rapidly deteriorating in their deliberative capacities and oversight functions, elections rarely provide an occasion for a protracted wrestling with complex issues. The phenomenon that many observers have described as the ‘ethnification’ of the party system, whereby voters are most likely to vote according to their caste or some other ethnic affiliation and political parties find it very difficult to transcend their respective social bases, may be in part a product of the fact that elections are rarely a contest of ideas (even if the range of ideas is narrow).

If the ethnification of the party system is to be overcome, parties will have to ensure that elections are contests over ideas that voters can critically assess. There is a good deal of deserved self-congratulation about the fact that in recent decades Indian democracy has produced an unprecedented mobilization of Backward Castes and Dalits. But this self congratulation has occluded the fact that there is relatively little serious, open and protracted discussion of policy issues. Our political parties resist such discussion; most party leaders are unembarrassingly unaware of their own manifestoes; most members of Parliament seem not to have the foggiest idea about the bills they voted for or against; and legislative agendas, with the exception of a few high profile and often merely symbolic issues, are seldom the object of contention in electoral politics.

I cannot see any other way of remedying the lack of public deliberation on these issues other than through changing the culture of political parties in India.



In most democracies, parties perform crucial educative functions. Political leaders used to accepting the discipline and sanctity of democratic procedures within their own parties are also less likely to circumvent democracy when in government. Moreover, protracted intraparty primaries have a profound impact on party members. If the party platform is put up for serious contestation within the party, it is more likely that party members will know why their party takes the positions it does. It is also more likely that the battle within parties will become something more of a battle of ideas rather than a race for patronage.

The simple reason for the poor quality of public deliberation in forums like Parliament is this: the rise of leaders within political parties is not, in a single instance, dependent upon persuading party members of the cogency of your ideas. This is partly a result of the fact that within parties there is no such thing as an open and fair contest at almost any level of the party hierarchy. Election campaigns are both too brief and enormous in scope to act as proper forums for protracted deliberation.



In most democracies the groundwork of political education is done within political parties and the more open and democratic their structure the more likely it is that politicians will be better educated on the issues. More effective forms of accountability and deliberation require a pluralization of the sites at which politicians are held accountable and parties are essential to this process. The current state of our parties is schooling our politicians in arbitrariness, haphazardness, uncertainty and lack of deliberative purpose.

Poorly institutionalized intra-party democracy produces more factions. In circumstances where the legitimacy of contending groups within a party is not dependent upon a clearly verifiable and open mandate from within the party, the survival of political leaders depends more on political intrigue than on persuading their followers. And those who lose out in this process can nurse the illusion that they were victims of intrigue rather than of their own failures.

Hence those who lose the contest for party leadership are never delegitimized. Only in a system where the road to the top is less dependent upon creating a mass support within the party can so many politicians openly harbour the ambition of the highest office. Of course, much factionalism is simply a product of ambition. But ambition is given freer rein in circumstances where there are no settled procedures to determine whose authority counts.



All our political parties are in internal disarray. The Congress has no institutional mechanisms for incorporating new groups or generating a set of leaders with some popular base. The ideological differences within the BJP between L.K. Advani and Bangaru Laxman are signs that a war of succession is beginning in earnest. The Janata Dal and the Third Front has always been hampered by the fact that there are no clear criteria to determine who will inherit the mantle of leadership. The only way in which this Front can coalesce into an enduring coalition is if it can settle upon procedural norms that will facilitate decisions rather than rely upon the whims and ambitions of a handful of leaders. In the absence of clear democratic procedures within the parties to resolve these questions, these parties will continue to be plagued by the factionalism that has been so detrimental to both their own interests and the stabilization of the party system.

The simple fact is that the lack of intraparty democracy impedes proper representation rather than enhances it. By their non-transparency, parties have restricted voter choices rather than increase them. The reasons for the lack of proper intraparty democracy are not hard to understand. Parties are endogenous institutions that adopt certain norms and procedures. The question is under what conditions do parties choose to create democratic rules and procedures in the first place? What incentives do they have to institutionalize democracy within their parties?

Here the answers turn out not to be very encouraging. Leaders like as much control over their parties as possible. They like to set agendas, select candidates that are beholden to them, and maintain themselves in power. Most leaders have an incentive not to institutionalize settled procedures for challenging their power. And those who are left out of power circuits within parties find it difficult to act collectively to reform procedures.

This is so for a number of reasons. They can be individually bought off by those in power; they fear the added uncertainty to their prospects for advancement that contesting elections might create; and few have enough commitment to procedural proprieties to fight for them. The short-term interests of party leaders are thus often at odds with the long-term interests of the party.



Comparative evidence suggests that even parties of long-standing authority reform themselves very rarely. It took decades to reform the British Labour party’s internal procedures. The Democratic Party in the U.S. stumbled into reforms only in the late ’60s. Since the democratization of parties is tied to power struggles within the parties, it is not surprising that there have been very few attempts at democratization. But this does not mean failure is inevitable. The rank and file of the party will have to insist that it is in the long-term interests of the party to properly institutionalize procedures. Or, alternatively, the internal configurations of power within parties need to be propitious.

For instance, one can imagine conditions of stalemate within a political party where two contending factions are almost equally arrayed in terms of their power, where both lose substantially if one of the factions leaves the party, and where the only mechanism for reconciling the factions is the institutionalization of fair procedures. Under what conditions the contingent set of circumstances that might give parties reasons to reform might arise is therefore hard to predict. It is not surprising that there have been few moves towards seriously institutionalizing reforms of political parties.

Does the remoteness of the prospect that political parties will undertake to reform themselves mean that intraparty democracy should be legislated into existence? Certainly, comparative evidence again suggests that state regulation is often necessary for party reform. In Germany parties have been required to meet certain conditions in nominating their candidates. Candidates have to be chosen by a direct secret vote of members of the party at both constituency and federal levels. If the party’s management committee objects to a list so chosen, a second vote is held and the results are final.



In the American case, first laws were enacted that required the use of secret ballots in intraparty elections. Laws laying down the qualifications for party membership followed these, in turn followed by statutes specifying the administrative structure of parties, till finally the direct primary was instituted. It is true that in the American system, in some states, minor parties are not required to comply in the same way as the major parties with the legal structures imposed upon them.

If there is legal mandating of intraparty elections in India, we will have to carefully examine the advantages and disadvantages of different nominating procedures. There is a whole range of procedures available that would repay careful study which cannot be undertaken within the confines of this paper. It may be the case that parties can be given wide latitude in setting up their own voting procedures, so long as they are recognizably democratic. My own view is that one must be cautious in involving the state in India for a couple of reasons.



First, I do not think that despite the desirability of intraparty democracy, only political parties that institutionalize intraparty democracy should be allowed to contest elections. Freedom of association, within limits, on terms that one chooses is an equally important value. There seems to be no normative argument why parties that do not function internally democratically should be banned from the political process. We are free not to vote for them, but we cannot silence their voices. I also suspect that it is more important that the large parties have such procedures because they structure access to power in more significant ways than smaller parties. Smaller parties could be given more discretion.

Second and most importantly, there are grave dangers in giving independent commissions more powers to disqualify political parties. Such commissions ought to insist on and oversee the fact that parties do not violate legal norms. But giving them carte blanche powers to decide when a particular party has held internal elections is both normatively and prudentially unsound. Normatively speaking, parties ought to be self-organizing and their structure ought not to be mandated by the state. Prudentially speaking, can we trust independent commissions to fair arbitrators of the process?

The recent record of the Election Commission has been exemplary, but that may be an artifact of contingent circumstances like the quality of election commissioners we have had. The degree to which a party has organized fair internal elections cannot be easily made clear and giving state bodies wide latitude in interpreting this requirement would be to invite disaster. Imagine the prospect of a major political party being disqualified on the eve of elections because of some technicality pertaining to the way in which it conducted its internal elections. Giving election commissioners powers to disenfranchise parties, no matter how worthy the cause, itself runs serious risks. These risks may not be ultimately decisive, but they should be taken seriously. These issues require more consideration than can be given here.



Reforming parties will be a slow and laborious process. I have not touched on many issues that are important to institutionalizing healthy political parties: the sources of political finance, the criteria for membership and so forth. Any attempts to institutionalize intraparty democracy will have to take them into consideration. Nor is the reform of parties a panacea for all ills. But one thing is clear. The reform of political parties will have to be the focus of our political energies.

The health of democracy requires that we attend to the health of our parties and the party system. Intraparty democracy will prevent fragmentation of parties, make politicians more accountable and enhance the quality of deliberation. The degree to which political parties are willing to countenance grand constitutional experiments without setting their own houses in order ought to be an object of suspicion.

Our anxieties about the functioning of democracy in India are more likely to be alleviated by proper attention to intraparty democracy than by tinkering with a constitution that exemplifies the democratic aspirations more than our party leaders do.