Democracy and federalism within political parties

Commentators often compare the new BJP under Modi and Shah with the Congress of yore when the chief ministers and state leadership were reduced to the status of regional satraps.

Published: 11th November 2022 12:16 AM  |   Last Updated: 11th November 2022 12:16 AM   |  A+A-

Shekhar Yadav

An apocryphal story about Nehru goes, when asked by someone as to why India chose the Westminster model of democracy, he said something to the effect that democracy is not the best system of governance, but they are yet to discover something better. In other words, there is nothing called a perfect democracy. This is true for nations as it is for corporations, non-profit organisations, trusts and societies, as it is for political parties.

Talking of political parties, when the Congress leaders were blowing their trumpets over the election of Mallikarjun Kharge as party president, many scoffed at its claim of internal democracy. Although the polls were held with over 9,000 members of the All India Congress Committee collegium casting physical ballots—it was seen as a sham by which the nominee of the Gandhi family was placed on the president’s chair. Similarly, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was chided for its claim of electing a president by consensus, which, in reality, meant the choice of a few top brasses of the BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Family-run parties do not have any such problem as the party chief is always decided along dynastic lines.

So which party is the most democratic of them all? In the Congress, even after Mallikarjun Kharge’s elevation, Rahul Gandhi continues to be the de-facto leader and Sonia Gandhi, unquestionably, the supremo. Priyanka Gandhi, too, is a member of the Gandhi troika. In BJP, too, it is common knowledge that Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s writ runs across the party. Thus, while campaigning for the assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, Narendra Modi makes no bones about asking for votes in his name, going over the local candidate and even the chief minister of the state. Senior Congress leader P Chidambaram has said the prime minister is undermining the basis of “constituency-based parliamentary democracy”. Be that as it may, other political leaders adopt the same strategy. Before the 2016 Assembly Elections in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee had famously said—please think that I am your candidate in all 294 seats. Similarly, the Congress is not shy of admitting that the Gandhis are its primary vote-catchers.

Narendra Modi’s common rhetoric in assembly polls since he became the prime minister has been the power of “double-engine sarkar”. This has yielded mixed results, as we saw in the case of West Bengal in 2021 and the previous assembly elections in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan. It worked well in Uttar Pradesh, where the Yogi Adityanath government had worked with the Centre to deliver visible changes in governance and development. However, in Gujarat, where Narendra Modi is generally considered to be the “super chief minister”, the BJP faltered in 2017 because of the lacklustre performance of the state government. In the other states, including Jharkhand recently, the “Modi Magic” itself was not enough to compensate for the failings of the state leadership.

Commentators often compare the new BJP under Modi and Shah with the Congress of yore when the chief ministers and state leadership were reduced to the status of regional satraps. That was not the case in the early decades of Independence when the Congress had strong leaders in the states like K Kamaraj, Y B Chavan, Dr B C Roy, and Biju Patnaik. The state units and governments operated with greater autonomy under the large tent of the national leadership. Subsequently, after the split of 1969, Indira Gandhi dwarfed the state leadership, making them vassals of the Central government. This appears to be where BJP is moving now with some ominous indicators. Today, barring Yogi Adityanath, no state leader can challenge the Modi-Shah authority.

However, diminishing the stature of regional leaders has its perils. It results in a lack of ownership as their being in office depends on the pleasure of the prime minister. Because of insecurity, they cannot command the loyalty of the ranks who keep sniping from behind. So, Narendra Modi may take jibes at the infighting within Congress at the state level, but the situation within BJP is no less fractious. This becomes apparent at the time of elections when rebels and dissidents raise their heads, as is unravelling now in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. In the long run, the organisation gets weakened if it becomes over-dependent on the political equity of a single personality, as it happened with the Congress.

In contrast, as the aura of the Gandhis began to wane and the Congress’ political fortunes dipped nationally, there was a rise of the state bosses flexing their muscles. Chief ministers like Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattisgarh and Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan are now power centres to reckon with. Even in a state like Karnataka, where the Congress is not in power, D K Shivakumar and Siddaramaiah are no pushovers. The Gandhis seem to have recognised this phenomenon, which may have set in motion a process of democratisation and federalism in the grand old party that had become excessively centralised.

The only other party significantly extending its national footprint is the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). In its attempt to ramp up quickly and leapfrog into the league of truly national parties, it appears to be following a franchisee model—where each state unit gets to use the party (corporate) mascot and face time of the brand ambassadors for a royalty.

Democracy comes in various forms and, in India, it is still a work in progress. Operating models of the major political parties have a direct impact on how parliamentary systems evolve in the country. Whether their internal dynamics play out and push India towards a presidential system or a dialectical process takes the country back to a culture of true federalism are questions floating in the air.

(Tweets @SandipGhose)

Sandip Ghose

Current affairs commentator



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