A republic like ours depends on our representatives. Their job was to make a case for their constituents. Their dharma was to tread according to their moral and practical compasses. But they have been reduced to a leverage-generating statistic. Their masters use them as pawns for illusory shadow fighting.
Those of us who follow American politics closely woke up to the first Republican Party debate on Friday morning. A colossal seventeen candidates have put their hats in the ring this time around. The debate hosted by Fox News had on stage the leading ten according to their ratings. Only one of them, race leader and real estate mogul Donald Trump, admitted he was using the Republican Party as a means to attain presidency. The other nine agreed to back whichever one of them emerged as the leading choice in the final run up. Had one been unaware of this collective assent, it would have been non-deductible for they mercilessly tore into each other regarding how the country’s foreign policy, immigration problem and economy should be dealt with. And yet they will all support the primary-winning candidate. Despite their differences about individual issues, their underlying political philosophy remains the same.
But this sort of inter-party democracy is non-existent in India. Almost every party follows what is known as the ‘high-command culture’. A position on any issue is taken right at the top, and maintained with military consistency till the lowest rung. Politicians are often hounded by the media for holding differing views from their party on a particular issue. Yet every party advocates internal democracy and claims to uphold it.
For example Congress heir-apparent Rahul Gandhi said before the 2014 general elections that in keeping with the party’s credentials of internal democracy, cadres of fifteen constituencies would select their Lok Sabha candidates. In keeping with the party’s actual credentials, the plan fizzled out soon. The Congress party is an example of the upholding of high-command culture. Whenever they win a state election, more often than not the high-command selects a leader on an arbitrary basis. The leader is then ‘unanimously’ elected by the legislators. When the high command decides to systematically stall parliament, the MPs have no option but to follow suit. MP Shashi Tharoor learned this the hard way. He spoke his mind criticising parliamentary disruption, and was duly reprimanded. Last week, the north-eastern chief ministers of the party tweeted praising the union government for the Naga accord. The Tweets disappeared mysteriously.
The BJP is relatively more democratic in many ways, although it has a long way to go by global standards. Yes the odd saffron-clad men and women were reprimanded when they spoke out of turn, but it was not so much for what they said as for how they said it. Subramaniam Swamy is almost never frowned upon when he says similar things in a more seeming way. But democracy is more visible in action than in words when it comes to the BJP. For example, without getting into the merits and demerits, Devendra Fadnavis is leading quite a conservative regime in Maharashtra. It is hard to imagine Modi or Chouhan doing the same, but that doesn’t stop the party from giving Fadnavis a free hand. Subramaniam Swamy stands out in this category too. As Modi and Jaitly fly down to Chennai seeking Jayalalithaa’s support in certain areas, Swamy passionately pursues his legal battles and attempts to send her to jail. Perhaps the strongest example of inter-party democracy was when the party had to succumb to the cadre and declare Modi as the prime ministerial candidate two years ago, despite high-level opposition. But all of this does not mean that the party officially embraces multiple opinion and that distinct viewpoints are the norm.
There was a time when the Aam Aadmi Party sought to take democracy to the next level and gave their local units the responsibility to select candidates. But this, much like the other founding values of the party, seems to have been a sham. Nowadays, members are often expelled for anti-party activities. These activities are not so much anti-party as they are anti-Kejriwal. In effect, the expulsions defeat the notion of inter-party democracy, just as some of their other actions have defeated other notions which were very close to their hearts.
Sitaram Yechury was elected the new Communist general secretary in a legitimate inter-party election recently, but the Communists are not a force to be reckoned with anymore. The other regional parties are highly undemocratic, although to be fair to them they never claimed otherwise. We saw how the TMC replaced its railway minister when his policies ruffled some important feathers. We see how intelligent men and women participate in television debates every night defending the most unethical of actions by their colleagues, simply because they have to. Certain regional parties have become synonymous with their high command to such an extent that one doesn’t have a place in them if one isn’t willing to tow the fief’s every word.
Encouraging a more open discourse within the parameters of a general ideology would mean the end of the road for the divisive, the narrow-minded and the corrupt. Actions of parties would be a reflection of what their electorate really seeks, taking democracy to its logical conclusion. Decisions wouldn’t be taken behind closed doors in the slick manner that is rampant. Politicians would have to think twice before backstabbing the populace, for their first obstruction would be at home and well publicized.
What cripples our political class and therefore the country today, is the dearth of credible options both in terms of people and ideas. It is essential that we do away with concepts like high command, issuing of whips and towing the party line. Our political parties cannot continue being a group of cheerleaders propagating the whims and fancies of a few. We need to reduce them to nothing but underlying ideologies. Internal subjectivity must replace the current unnatural political constraints. Families like the Gandhis must be shown the door when their time is up. Intellectuals like Tharoor must have a freer platform of expression. Meritocracy must replace entitlement and precedence.
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