When MK Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilisation, he is supposed to have answered: “I think it would be a good idea.” I feel the same way when questions are raised about internal democracy in Indian political parties. Yes, it would be a good idea because there sure as hell isn’t much of it now.
My gloom over the lack of democracy in Indian political parties deepened after I watched the UK’s ruling Conservative Party (Tory, for short) elect a new leader and thus, the next prime minister. Everyone had always said it was going to be Liz Truss but in the end, Rishi Sunak gave her a good fight. Truss won 57 per cent of the vote, lower than the polls had predicted and much lower than her predecessor, Boris Johnson, who had become the leader with the support of almost 67 per cent of party members. Even David Cameron had won with 65 per cent of the internal votes.
You could argue that the polls overestimated Truss’s support and the experts underestimated Tory party members (‘they are bound to vote for the safe white woman, not the smooth brown fellow’). But it could also be that this was inner party democracy in action. As the campaign progressed, many people switched their votes to Sunak. Who knows?
What is clear though is that it could never happen here in India. Inner-party democracy — at least in the sense of choosing the leader — is not only absent in India but has probably never existed in Independent India.
Also read: As Congress mulls next president, the flip side of inner party democracy
Congress in Gandhi hands
When Jawaharlal Nehru was alive, there was no question of anyone else leading the Congress party. Democracy in the sense of dissent did exist but it was muted.
When Lal Bahadur Shastri took over after Nehru died, the dissent grew a little stronger. But it is doubtful if the dissidents could have replaced him had he not died so suddenly. Even then, there was no internal Congress democracy. A coterie of senior Congress bosses installed Indira Gandhi.
And when Indira grew tired of listening to those bosses and created her own Congress, there was no question of internal democracy. This was her Congress, one that she owned and would always lead. That remained her model. In the years following her defeat in 1977, she created yet another avatar of the party; this time it was even called Congress (I).
Next, Indira Gandhi propped up her son Sanjay as her successor. When he died, she simply replaced him with her other son. When she was assassinated, the Congress turned to Rajiv as though there was no possible successor outside of the family. When Rajiv was killed, the Congress turned to his wife Sonia who had never expressed the slightest interest in politics. Only when she turned down the job and backed Narasimha Rao, did the succession move, briefly, out of the family.
That’s why most Congressmen are bemused by the forthcoming party election. How can anyone possibly stand for party president when there are at least two members of the family who could take the job? If they say they are not interested then it is the duty of Congressmen to make them change their minds.
Also read: There are many reasons why Rishi Sunak lost UK PM chair. But race isn’t the main one
MGR to NTR to BJP
The belief that dynasty trumps democracy extends beyond the Congress. When M. G. Ramachandran died, the only two successors were his wife and his girlfriend. When N. T. Rama Rao married again, his new wife wanted to take over. Eventually, his son-in-law fought and won the job. The reason Tejashwi Yadav is where he is today is because he is Lalu Prasad Yadav’s son. The obvious successor to Telangana’s K. Chandrashekar Rao is his son. When the Congress refused to accept the claim of Y. Rajasekhara Reddy’s son to succeed him, Jagan created his own party and eventually succeeded his father anyway.
It is the same in nearly every regional party. Internal democracy in the Shiv Sena was a contest between Uddhav and Raj Thackeray. When Eknath Shinde finally broke the Sena, he did not do it through a vote but with a knife plunged into his leader’s back. In the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the only question is “who will take over? Sharad Pawar’s nephew? Or his daughter?”
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) says it is different. And certainly, in terms of dynastic succession, its record is much better than the rest. But even there, the leadership is determined not by a democratic vote of the membership but by drama at the top. For years, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the unquestioned leader and L. K. Advani was his loyal sidekick. When Vajpayee was pushed aside during the Ayodhya movement, it was not because of some democratic upheaval. It was because his once-loyal sidekick got ambitious and decided he wanted to be the leader himself.
It didn’t last, of course. Eventually, Vajpayee was back, though the relationship between the two men was never the same again. When Vajpayee retired and Advani did get the job, he lost an election he should have won. But even then, there was no democratic vote to oust him. He was toppled in a ‘coup’ that brought Narendra Modi to Delhi. And like emperors of old who liked to exile their predecessors, Modi promptly cast Advani out of the political arena into the Margdarshak Mandal. It was more dramatic than democratic.
Also read: Modi dislikes dynasties. But he dislikes BJP losing elections even more
Can India’s parties be democratic?
Will a day come when conspiracy, subterfuge, dynasty and the stab-in-the-back will be replaced by genuine internal party democracy in India?
Most people say it is impossible. But I am not so sure. Let’s take the Congress, for example. Yes, there is no inner party democracy. But assume, for the purposes of argument, that the Gandhis remove themselves from the reckoning. With no dynasty to genuflect before, won’t the Congress have to turn to elections?
Likewise, with the BJP. The question of ‘After Modi who’ is never asked because Narendra Modi is not going anywhere. But assume, hypothetically, that he does say he wants to step down. Is it so unthinkable that the BJP will have to democratically elect the next leader? There certainly is no obvious successor.
One of the reasons why politicians at the top don’t like inner-party democracy is that it never throws up the results they want. In America, where a system of primaries forces democracy on political parties, few senior Republicans are thrilled by the prospect of Donald Trump becoming the nominee again. But that might well happen.
It takes time but politicians do learn that not all decisions can be taken in smoke-filled rooms. US political parties became genuinely internally democratic only in the 1960s. So did Britain’s Conservative Party, which, till the early 1960s, had refused to elect its leaders believing that they were chosen by God.
Eventually, the logic of external democracy forces parties to democratise internally. Sadly, in India, ‘eventually’ can be a very long time. But I do believe that one day the national parties (though not what Narendra Modi calls the ‘family parties’ in the states) will have no choice but to choose their leaders in transparent contests.
Dynasty and conspiracy cannot reign forever. Or at least, I hope so!
Vir Sanghvi is a print and television journalist, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.