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Can India achieve good governance without intra-party democracy?

As we observe the Good Governance Day, it is imperative we analyzed intra-party democracy in India’s political parties as they are the prime instruments for the execution of democracy in the country. It is them who conduct the selection of candidates, the mobilization of the electorate, the formulation of agendas and the passing of legislations. In other words, it is the political parties whose governments deliver ‘good governance’ through bureaucracy and legislative mechanisms.

First of all, let us understand what internal or intra-party democracy is. It basically means the democracy inside the party and refers to the level and methods of including party members in the decision making and deliberation within the party structure.

Alas, despite being the world’s largest democracy there seems to be no intra-party democracy in India.

“It is paradoxical that the world’s largest democracy prefers to run its party system in a feudal manner. We have the world’s best election administration, but we have the world’s worst system of administering intra-party democracy. All out parties are autocracies or oligarchies,” writes senior journalist R Jagannathan.

Who gets nominated for the post of Prime Minister or Chief Minister is decided not through voting by party members – as done through primaries in the United States – but through a questionable consensus among the party’s so-called elders.

The need of the hour is intra-party democracy i.e. a publicly-mandated system of intra-party elections at all levels in all parties sans which good-governance would remain a distant dream.

In fact, the United States is one of a few countries to select candidates through popular vote in a primary election system; most countries like India rely on party leaders to vet candidates. The US has come a long way since first enacting laws that required the use of secret ballots in intraparty elections. Close on its heels came laws laying down the qualifications for party membership and by statutes specifying the administrative structure of parties. Eventually, the direct primary was instituted.

It is difficult to fathom such systematic transparency in Indian political parties where only a chosen few rule the roost. How can parties that themselves lack democracy protect it while ruling the country?

Aam Aadmi Party

When the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was launched, it was seen a ray of hope and harbinger of change amidst all the filth surrounding us. The fledgling party promised to be different and visibly distinct from the existing ones and thus usher in a new era of true democracy and Swaraj or good governance.

In fact, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal in his book ‘Swaraj’ presents a model of governance based on Gandhi’s concept of Swaraj or ‘Home-Rule.’ In a nutshell, he along with his supporters believe that the power, which is concentrated in the hands of a few individuals in New Delhi and state capitals, must be vested to gram sabhas and mohalla sabhas (not to be confused with gram or khap panchayats) so that the people may be empowered to take decisions affecting their lives.

Kejriwal promised his voters in Delhi that they would be a part of all decisions the elected government would take, vowing to build a party that would not be run on the whims and fancies of a chosen few but the workers i.e. the rank and file. First time in the history of India, a political party vowed to give the people an opportunity to elect rather than select their candidates and then apparently did a volte-face. In Punjab, the Delhi CM refused to empower the locals to choose their own leaders, following in the footsteps of the BJP and the Congress. In Delhi, AAP founder members like Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav were literally thrown out of the party on dubious grounds of indulging in ‘anti-party activities’, showing how little intra-party democracy was there in the newbie outfit, failing to practice what it preached to others.

Today, AAP looks like a mirror image of other political parties whose condition remains pathetic to say the least.

Bharatiya Janata Party

Bharatiya Janata Party or the BJP claims to be a party with a difference, but there seems to be nothing that sets it apart from others. When it comes to intra-party democracy, the party is no different from the Congress ruled by political dynasties. The concentration of power remains in the hands of a few individuals. Top party leadership that comprises Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah – both from Gujarat – continue to take orders from Nagpur.

Leaders like Kirti Azad who try to expose corruption in the DDCA through facts and evidence are shown the door on ‘disciplinary grounds.’ Criminals or those with muscle power continue to represent the leading party in the parliament. In fact, it is widely believed that the Prime Minister and his coterie are running the whole country, excluding their own party men from the decision-making process.


The mere mention of Congress reminds us of dynastic politics. It is bad for a vibrant democracy like ours, for it is simply wrong and unjustified for a person to believe that he or she is destined to rule over others just because they happen to belong to a particular family. The Congress – India’s Grand Old Party – continues to impose the Gandhi family members on the masses and its own party men, undermining merit and causing unrest in the minds of deserving people which is not good for a society.

However, this is a malaise affecting almost all political parties here. Patrick French in his book ‘India: A Portrait’ wrote that all MPs below the age of 30 in the 15th Lok Sabha were from political families. Additionally, all 11 Congress MPs below the age of 35 years were hereditary MPs. All MPs below the age of 30 in the 15th Lok Sabha were from political families

After being ruled for decades by the likes of Gandhis, Sindhias, Naidus, Abdullahs, a young India today asks how we can get rid of this ‘curse.’ That’s a good question.

Finding an answer to this question, however, is no duck soup. For dynastic politics has been an integral part of our country since the days of kings and queens. In ancient India, the son, daughter or nearest heir of an incumbent monarch would automatically succeed the latter following his death without giving an opportunity to other far more deserving candidates. It is a pity that in the 21st century, we seem to be still living in the past and have not been able to find a lasting solution to our social issues.

Rahul Gandhi has been trying to introduce intra-party democracy in his party or so he claims. But the change must begin from the top.

Criminals in Parliament

In the absence of intra-party democracy and a well-defined process for the distribution of tickets to candidates before polls, political parties shamelessly hand over tickets to ‘winnable’ candidates, leading to the presence of criminals in the Parliament.

The table below prepared by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) shows how all major parties gave tickets to candidates with criminal backgrounds in elections to the Lok Sabha held in 2004 and 2009.

Criminalized Indian Politics

Internal elections in Indian political parties

In a letter sent to all political parties in April 2011, the Election Commission directed them to send details of the internal organizational elections held in the parties. In reply, the parties provided only the number of delegates who attended the session, the office bearers elected (name and posts) and the date for the next elections. Notably, there was no mention in their reply about the detailed information on the nature of elections such as close ballot or unanimous nomination and election, how many delegates voted for which positions and who these delegates were.

See the table below:

Internal election in Indian parties

The way forward

“We know political parties have skeletons in the closet. They would rather turn democratic institutions into a corpse to protect those skeletons than think of reform,” writes Pratap Bhanu Mehta.

Apart from the reason mentioned by Mehta, it is difficult to fathom why Indian parties should not nominate their candidates through a system of primaries as in America. It is a pity that our political parties never elect, but always select people, making a mockery of democracy. This ought to change. The need of the hour is intra-party democracy i.e. a publicly-mandated system of intra-party elections at all levels in all parties sans which good governance would remain a distant dream.

Sapan Kapoor
The author is a journalist based in New Delhi and Staff Writer with NewsGram.


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