Circumventing Democracy

Former Chief Election Commissioner JM Lingdoh

Concept of democracy is under serious threat as most of the political parties in India have made habit of holding sham organizational elections to perpetuate hold of a particular leader

By Anil Anand

India is often described by its own Netizen as a bubbling democracy and rightly so as it has been on account of the democratic processes that powerful governments were upstaged through sheer power of the ballot. To that extent every countryman should be proud of this inheritance but seen in totality many drawbacks in the fundamentals of the democratic structure have been allowed to perpetuate with immunity.

The political parties are the base of any democracy and that is true in this case as well. Ideally speaking the process of democracy in true sense of the term should emanate from these parties and the bedrock should be greater inner party democracy.

Does this exist in any of the Indian political parties? One is afraid the answer is no. So another question arises that in the absence of inner democracy, which flows from free and fair organizational elections, in the political parties are we a democracy in real terms?

The Indian democracy has been quietly facing a dilemma for the past over seven decades on account of lack of inner party democracy in the national as well as regional political parties. A mere lip service has till date been the response to resolve this dilemma. As a result the concept of democracy is under serious threat as most of the political parties hold sham organizational elections to perpetuate hold of a particular leader or a group.

Who else but three former Chief Election Commissioners of India to better explain this dilemma in their own words?

The then CEC SL Shakhdhar way back in 1980 observed that political parties make strong demands for conduct of free and fair elections to legislative bodies, but choose to ignore the application of the same principles when it comes to the functioning of their own party. He suggested the need for a new legislation to make it obligatory for parties to hold transparent elections.

Shakhdhar also co-author of the voluminous book on Parliamentary procedures and practices prominently known as ‘Kaul and Shakdher’ and considered a Bible on this subject, went unheeded. As a result of which the concept of inner party democracy continues facing a quite burial.

Another former CEC the indomitable TN Seshan who is credited with providing the ECI with firm footing despite successive Union Governments’ reluctance to give more powers to the Commission, also dared to resolve this dilemma but without any success.

Seshan as the CEC had ordered in 1994 that political parties which had not constituted governing bodies according to their respective constitutions would be derecognized. Little did he realize that it was beyond the ECI’s powers and had no option but to repeatedly write to the then government for more powers but without any success?

This story to seek more powers through amendment in the Representation of Peoples Act- 1951 is continuing till date. Political parties might differ in perceptions but they are one on one count, keeping the ECI powerless at least in the matter of governing organizational elections.

On a comparatively more firm note, under the given circumstances, one of Seshan’s successors M S Gill issued directions to all political parties which conduct their internal business in “an entirely undemocratic manner” to ensure that the organizational elections are held regularly and as per the party constitution. Significantly, he qualified his order by ruling out any “interference” by the ECI in the internal political process of the parties. It was his way of conveying that the Commission has no powers in this regard.

At a later date another former CEC JM Lyngdoh concurred that a constitutional amendment was needed in order to make political parties adopt inner party democracy. This was the only way to ensure effective functioning of democracy in the country he felt. But nothing has changed ever since.

The RP Act of 1951 is almost silent on powers of the Commission to impose directives on political parties to ensure inner party democracy. Nevertheless the CECs from time to time did show interest and acted in their own ways but failed to convince the government of the day.

The net outcome of deliberately perpetuating this dilemma has been that none of the political parties abide by their own constitutions. It makes convenient for the leaders to appoint themselves as party chiefs or get their favored candidates selected by circumventing the democratic process of holding elections. The absence of free and fair organizational elections and with the advent of anti-defection laws, the leaders have started treating their MPs and MLAs as their minions not as people’s elected representatives.

The issue of total absence of inner party democracy ones again came to light when ECI recently directed the Indian National Congress to complete its intra party elections by the end of December 2017 after the party had been seeking repeated postponement on one pretext or the other. The toothless Commission will only remain a mute witness with the process to ensure election or installation of favored ones already gaining steam.

In the context of organisational elections particularly that of the president the most abused term is the principle of developing consensus or unanimity. With no one with Constitutional authority to oversee poll process of political parties, in the name of developing consensus or arriving at unanimity all vices come into play. In the final analysis a particular leader or his selected ones is ensured of victories in the name of democracy.

The RP Act, 1951 was amended in 1989 and Section 29 with provisions for registration of political parties and other related activities was included. Section 29 (A) (9) provided for internal elections, “after an association or body has been registered as a political party as aforesaid, any change in its name, head office, office-bearers, address or in any other material matters shall be communicated to the Commission without any delay.”

The amendment stopped at that without either saying anything or dealing with providing supervisory powers to ECI to ensure proper organizational elections.

The ECI continues to remain toothless at least on this front while political parties are continuously flouting their own constitutions in the matter of organisational polls. This is evident from the response of the parties to a letter written by ECI in April 2011 seeking details of organisational elections from all political parties. The response given by six national parties portrayed a dismal scenario.

All these political parties gave an incomplete picture. Instead of election details they provided the number of delegates who attended the special sessions supposedly convened to hold elections, names of the office-bearers election and the date for the next elections. Nothing whatsoever was mentioned about the manner in which elections were conducted. The natural conclusion drawn was that the elections were never held or the principle of unanimity/consensus was at play in its worst form.

Nothing has happened till date despite recommendations by a number of committees made from time to time on introduction of intra-party democracy mechanisms in recruitment of members and candidates, elections to important posts, consultation with party members on deciding party agenda, fund raising and providing opportunities for younger set of politicians to rise.

The 170th report of the Law Commission of India on electoral reforms dedicated a full chapter on the necessity of providing laws relating to internal democracy within parties. It states, “If democracy and accountability constitute the core of our constitutional system, the same concepts must also apply to and bind the political parties which are integral to parliamentary democracy. It is the political parties that form the government, man the Parliament and run the governance of the country. It is therefore, necessary to introduce internal democracy, financial transparency and accountability in the working of the political parties. A political party which does not respect democratic principles in its internal working cannot be exposed to respect those principles in the governance of the country. It cannot be dictatorship internally and democratic in its functioning outside.”

The report from the National Commission for Review of Working of Constitution states that, “The Commission recommends that there should be a comprehensive legislation [may be named as the Political Parties (Registration and Regulation) Act], regulating the registration and functioning of political parties or alliances of parties in India”.

All these recommendations have fallen on deaf ears. The sole reason is the unity among political parties to thwart any such move.