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An exclusive club

No Indian political party has a yearly schedule of internal polls. Naturally, only the rich and connected enter Parliament. This bias against merit fuels corruption, writes Sumit Mitra.

india Updated: Sep 05, 2011 01:10 IST

From the bulldozing style of public affairs activist Anna Hazare, nobody will say that his methods are democratic to a T. Some called him a hick town dictator.

‘I, the people,’ reads the headline of a report in The Economist critical of his fast. Yet, he has been successful so far because the government never took the corruption issue seriously, nor did it ever show any earnestness to liberate the anti-corruption mechanism from politicians’ stranglehold. Instead, it got, as Central Vigilance Commissioner, the official who orders corruption inquiries, a man who was himself facing trial for corruption.

It is in this context of the government’s endemic failure to initiate corrective actions on its own that one needs to examine Anna’s new challenge, which is to cleanse the electoral system. The system’s deficiency lies not in the way it gets people to vote — like the British or the European — but in the very nature of our political parties, which are arbitrary, autocratic and unaccountable. Our Constitution and that of erstwhile West Germany were written around the same time. While ours hardly uses the word ‘party’, the Germans never ignored the elephant in the living room. Their Constitution read, “The parties shall help form the political will of the people... Their internal organisation shall conform to democratic principles.”

Political parties in India, with no exception, are businesses run by powerful individuals or families. Each one of them is run by a ‘headquarter’ whose control and command system is as opaque as the castle in Franz Kafka’s novel. With the exception of the communist parties, who have a system of regular voting, however stage-managed, no party has an annual schedule of internal elections. However, inside these arbitrary parties, the new development taking place is a sudden influx of some very rich people. A study by J Prabhash in Asia Pacific Journal of Social Science (December 2010) shows that the average declared asset of the BJP Lok Sabha members rose 288% from Rs 96.91 lakh in the 14th Lok Sabha (2004) to Rs 3.07 crore in the 15th (2009). The BSP got rich quicker, with the average asset rising 288.05% in five years.

But even more intriguing was the bizarre enrichment of the oldest and the largest party, the Congress, which still swears by Mahatma Gandhi and his minimalist philosophy. In the five years of UPA 1, its Lok Sabha members’ average asset doubled (102.11%) from a high base of R3.10 crore to R6.28 crore. Significantly, during election times, a complaint that is heard off and on, though generally from unlucky ticket seekers, is that nominations are being ‘auctioned’. One such complainant, Margaret Alva, presently governor of Uttarakhand, reportedly lost her cool because her son was denied a party ticket.

Entry into Parliament is surely becoming increasingly a family matter, with the parties ruling India becoming more plutocratic and dynastic after every election. Patrick French, in his recent book, India: A Portrait, has traced the roots of the political careers of winners in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections to check out how many of them had their family background as springboards to plunge into politics. The largest party, Congress, with 208 members, has 78, or 37.5% of the Lok Sabha members who owe their status in life to their moms, dads or grandfathers. For Ajit Singh’s RLD, the ratio is a spectacular 100%, with all its five members belonging to what famous investor Warren Buffet described as the “lucky sperm club” — though it was in another context. But seven out of the nine members (77.8%) of Sharad Pawar’s NCP are what French calls HMPs (Hereditary MPs).

The mushrooming of political dynasties, and increasing entry of rich persons into Parliament, show how exclusive a club it is in a country where 37% people live below the poverty line. It’s corrupting public policies to suit the private ends of the plutocrats and dynasts. The talk that ‘There Is No Alternative’ to so and so, and so let dynasty prevail, are all smoke and mirrors, reminiscent of US elections before Andrew Jackson (1830s) when the caucuses in closed rooms decided who’d stand as a party’s presidential candidate. The subsequent changes were also liable to be torpedoed by powerful people. It was as late as 1972 that parties in the US were brought under electoral discipline, with candidates for all public offices being elected democratically by members through secret ballot.

In India, secret ballot for party elections holds the key to poll reform. The registration system of political parties under section 29A of the Representation of the People Act fails to bring them under the Election Commission’s scrutiny of fairness of internal elections. Office bearers’ election must be held under the commission’s supervision and through secret ballot. Activists of many hues in India want parties to choose their parliamentary and assembly candidates not at their headquarters’ diktat but through secret ballot by registered party members in the constituency, with the poll overseen by the Election Commission. Mayawati may be best qualified to head BSP, but let its members say so!

The connection between runaway corruption, and a Parliament which is representative only nominally, is obvious. It is as early as 1998, in the Vineet Narain versus the Union of India case, that JS Verma, then Chief Justice of India, drew the outline of a system by which the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) could function as an anti-corruption police independent of politicians’ interference. But that is water under the bridge and thanks to a Parliament with different priorities, the CBI is still the ruling party’s ‘seva dal’.

If Hazare’s critics are champions of the parliamentary system, they should do something to safeguard its representative character.

( Sumit Mitra is a Kolkata-based political commentator )

The views expressed by the author are personal