Nivedita Varadarajan

Sub-editor at BusinessLine, with a passion for politics from around the world, Liverpool FC and memes.Sub-editor at BusinessLine, with a passion for politics from around the world, Liverpool FC and memes.


Why parties must choose democracy to end generational fights

V Nivedita | Updated on July 28, 2020

The ‘high command’ culture must give way to intra-party democracy.

It seems like there is a political crisis in one state or other in India, every six months or so. The ruling party has a leadership crisis, after which one of two things will happen: either some members of the party break off, join the opposition party and form a new government or, normalcy is restored for the moment.

This shows all that is not right with our political system. We need urgent reforms to ensure set things straight. In this blog, I argue that political parties must shed their 'high command' mindset and embrace intra-party democracy to not only sustain itself, but to flourish.

The ongoing power tussle in Rajasthan, for example, is a classic case of inter-generational conflict between Chief minister Ashok Gehlot and Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot. This conflict could have been avoided if the Congress party allowed its cadre, and not the ‘high command’, to choose their leader in a transparent manner before the election in the State. That way, everyone will clearly know the party’s choice and who commands the respect of the party men and women. This way, established leaders can re-affirm their status.

To ensure that the anti-defection law is implemented in its full spirit, the government can tweak it to ensure that legislators who want to leave the party cannot just walk away. They would have to prove that the leader has lost majority support of the cadre before leaving. If they succeed, they can become the new leader, and if they fail so, they might have to leave the party itself. This would not only bring down horse trading, which is a common practice now, but also reduce corruption. This can also be applied to pre-poll alliances, so we can avoid another Maharashtra-like situation, when alliance partners -BJP and the Shiv Sena split right after the election.

The problem with the ‘high command’ mindset is that the establishment is likely to stick to its old ways of functioning and not move on with the times. This leads to the same ideas and tactics being used again and again. If the party is behind the curve, how can it ever win an election (and thus, effect any change in the society)? This problem never really arises in a fully democratic party, as new leaders will keep coming up to meet the needs of the party.

Several political parties could have avoided splits and power struggles if they moved away from the high command structure at the right time.Take the AIADMK for example, after the party lost J Jayalaithaa, it was in complete disarray. If the party had embraced democracy, then it would have suffered a split and three leadership changes in a short period of time.  The DMK and Shiv Sena too saw leadership changes in recent times, but both parties chose to go the dynastic route.

Is any party truly embracing intra-democracy? The answer is a resounding no. In parties that have dynastic leadership, the leader invests time and energy to train his son/daughter to become the next head. It is almost impossible to imagine that the top post will go to someone who is not related to the party head. 

Indian parties should take a leaf from other democracies when there is a need. Take the US for example, anyone who wishes to contest in the election will have to face his fellow party men and women, convince workers that they are the best candidate, win the primary/ caucuses to even become the official candidate of the party to stand in the election for the Senate, House of Representatives and even the presidency. In the United Kingdom, Keir Starmer was elected to lead the party in April 2020, after Jeremy Corbyn resigned after losing the national election. 

By providing cadre more power, the parties not only help change the way they function but will help strengthen democracy in India. This will also provide the people a clearer picture of their choices, thus giving them a greater say in the type of leaders, their preferred governance style and ultimately the nation’s destiny itself.

Published on July 28, 2020

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