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The state of our party system

India, the world's largest democracy, is run by some of the most undemocratic political parties, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Jan 07, 2007 02:59 IST
Counterpoint | Vir Sanghvi
Counterpoint | Vir Sanghvi

It’s not often that I feel sorry for LK Advani — not at a political level at least — but I have to say that I ended last year sympathising with the old boy.

As controversies go, his remarks about the BJP succession were hardly on par with his rediscovery of Jinnah, but they ended up propelling him into the centre of a completely unnecessary storm.

As anybody who has seen the full interview will attest, Advani didn't actually say a) that he wanted to be prime minister, b) that Rajnath Singh was a man of no consequence and, therefore, already out of the race, or c) that AB Vajpayee would not propose Advani's name for the job.

But because perfectly innocuous comments were torn out of context by Advani's critics, the BJP's Iron Man is now being seen as a rather ambitious old-age pensioner who is so eager to shift to Race Course Road that he will happily trample over his colleagues in his lust for power.

My sympathy for Advani is, however, only the starting point for my real concern this week.

Why did the remarks Advani did not make but was reported to have made stir up such a controversy?

Why should we expect the former deputy prime minister to play the hypocritical Uriah Heep-type creep that most Indian politicians have become and to say, "I have no ambition; I am in politics out of a desire to do charity"?

The answer has to do with one of the central crises of Indian party politics and one we pay insufficient attention to: the succession issue.

One of India’s proudest boasts is that we are the world’s largest democracy. There is no doubt that this is true. But it is as true that we are governed by some of the most undemocratic political parties in the world.

The succession issue epitomises the failure of internal party democracy in India. In the United States, the process of choosing a political party’s candidates for the top jobs is often more exhaustive — and exhausting — than the actual election itself.

As of now, nobody knows whom the Republicans will select to be their candidate at the next Presidential election. Even the last time around, it was by no means clear that George W Bush would get the nomination to run for a second term. Even a sitting President has to go through the process of re-nomination and this involves primaries and a convention.

In the UK, both major parties have well-established procedures through which their leaders are elected. In the early 1960s, when Harold Macmillan stepped down, no such process existed in the Conservative Party. Consequently, Alec Douglas-Home, a no-hoper, ended up becoming Prime Minister and he led his party to its first defeat in two decades. After that, the Conservatives quickly introduced an electoral system.

In India, we live with the bizarre reality that while a process did once exist, our politicians quietly destroyed it so that they could end intra-party democracy. When Lal Bahadur Shastri died suddenly in 1966, the Congress Party held an election to find his successor. The following year, when Indira Gandhi led the party into its worst-ever performance at a general election (though it still got an overall majority), Morarji Desai mounted a democratic challenge to the leadership and Mrs Gandhi ended up having to appoint him Deputy Prime Minister.

Since then, however, it has been downhill all the way. When the Janata Party took office in 1977, it deliberately chose not to have an election and Jayaprakash Narayan and Acharya Kripalani were asked to meet MPs and then nominate a Prime Minister. They chose Morarji but because the two other contenders for the job (Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram) never accepted the legitimacy of that choice, the government was doomed from the start.

The Congress, in the post-Indira phase, went with dynasty over democracy. When Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, its first reaction was to offer the job to his wife, Sonia. When she turned it down, they asked her for a preference between the candidates. She selected Narasimha Rao over Sharad Pawar.

Then, things got worse. When Narasimha Rao lost the election and found himself with one foot in a prison cell and the other on a banana peel, he was forced to step down. Even then, the party did not hold a democratic election. Instead, the old buffer chose another old buffer (the supremely sleazy Sitaram Kesri) to succeed him. Nobody seemed to think this was odd — let alone undemocratic.

Now, we’ve settled down to three completely undemocratic systems of selection. The first is dynasty, invented by Indira Gandhi but eagerly embraced by Charan Singh, Sheikh Abdullah, M Karunanidhi, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Sharad Pawar and even MGR and Lalu Yadav (except that they chose girlfriends and wives over children).

The second is the smoke-filled room method. Nobody understands how the Left chooses its leaders. Despite being a cadre-based party, it tends to have two separate sets of leaders. There are the chaps who actually have to win elections like Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. And then, there are the chaps who run the party like Harkishen Singh Surjeet and Prakash Karat.

But the second lot are clearly more powerful than the first. When Jyoti Basu hungered for the prime ministership, it was the Politburo which told him that he could not accept it. An angry Jyoti Basu sulked and termed it “a historic blunder”. But he did not say what members of many other parties would have: “I am India’s longest-serving chief minister; I have won many elections; everybody respects me; but you jokers have never even stood for a municipal election. So, who the hell are you to tell me not to take the job?”

That’s democracy and succession according to Karl Marx, I guess. The BJP has its own system. The leader is not elected in a genuine election and nor is he chosen in a smoke-filled room (though perhaps this is only because nobody in the RSS smokes). Instead, he is chosen by God.

How else can you explain the emergence of Vajpayee and Advani? Neither has a regional political base — they have changed states and constituencies many times in their careers. At the time when Vajpayee became the party’s candidate for Prime Minister, LK Advani would probably have won any leadership election among the party cadres.

And yet, Vajpayee got the job and declared that Advani would be his number two. It was not democracy. It was not caucus. So presumably, it was the will of God.

The problem these days is that God seems to have lost interest in the internal affairs of the BJP. So bored is He that He no longer bothers to express a preference for Vajpayee over Advani and has completely lost touch with the other contenders. Hence the crisis of the BJP.

In a Western democratic country, Vajpayee would have been asked by his party if he was still interested in the job. If he had said yes, then the party cadres would have been asked to vote on the desirability of his continuance. If he had said no, then Advani would have gone through the same process. And if even Advani had said no, then BJP members would have chosen between Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Murli Manohar Joshi or whoever.

But because there is no democracy within the BJP — or within any other Indian party — nobody asks Vajpayee if he thinks it’s time to call it a day. Instead, he is treated as a Prime Minister in waiting. As long as Vajpayee does not indicate that he is out of the race, poor Advani is made to feel, at 79, like a junior aspirant who is waiting for ‘Sir’ to retire so that the office is empty.

Obviously, Advani does want the job. I accept that he was ill-served by media accounts of his interview. But, equally, he could have avoided the whole controversy by simply stating that he was too old to be Prime Minister. (After all, Michael Howard stepped down as leader of the UK Conservatives on the grounds that he was in his 50s and that the party needed a younger leader.)

Equally obviously, there is nobody among the younger generation of BJP leaders who thinks that the party has any hope of winning the next election as long as it is led by a pair of old-age pensioners.

But because we have no democratic processes within our parties, the only way to change a leader is to stage a coup. And so far at least, nobody in the BJP is ready to wield the first knife or to fire the first shot.

How this crisis will resolve itself remains to be seen. But it would be a mistake to treat this as a BJP-specific issue. The problem goes beyond Advani, Vajpayee and their simmering colleagues. It touches at the heart of our party system.

We need to ask ourselves this: as the world’s largest democracy, are we content to be governed by parties that are ruled by dynasty, by undemocratic caucus and by the will of God (but only when He has the time)?

Remember: undemocratic parties cannot — in the long run — deliver democratic government.

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