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Saturday, April 10, 2004

Gandhi Bhavan was set afire by Congress’ own workers; KCR was gheraoed by his own party members from Khammam; the BJP office in Hyderabad was vandalized by their own cadre from Malakpet constituency and the TDP workers in Adilabad took out processions against their own party president.   All these workers were angry at the way their parties formed alliances, shared seats and distributed tickets for the impending state and parliament elections.  Having been robbed of their legitimate role in party decision-making process, these workers expressed dissent and discontent in an unprecedented manner and magnitude.  Political parties are oligarchic while electoral constituencies are reduced to personal fiefdoms.  No doubt, party members and supporters feel they are used only for carrying flags or shouting slogans at rallies.

Even when it comes to the important question of choosing their party leaders, the hard-working and dedicated grass root party worker has absolutely no role to play.  This only symbolizes the lack of internal democracy among political parties in India.

During the early years of the American republic, presidential nominees were chosen by the political party’s national legislators. Let us call it the American Party Democracy (Version 1.0) – ‘the debut edition’. The whole process used to take place behind closed-door meetings called ‘caucuses’.  Once each party’s nominee was thus chosen, the voters were forced to vote for one among those two (rarely, three) during the presidential elections.  This process was closed, undemocratic and foisted an artificial choice between candidates.   More like a ‘selection’ than an ‘election.’

Unfortunately, India still follows this archaic process when leaders of parties or alliances are selected by the legislators in India.  For instance, the Chief Minister of a state is decided behind closed door meetings of legislators and party leaders.  Strictly speaking, our CMs are neither elected by nor are responsible to the people of their state.   (This is the guiding principle behind mid-night political coups).

Let us now get back to the American story:  major reforms (American Party Democracy (Version 2.0) - ‘new and improved edition’) came in the 1830s during the administration of President Andrew Jackson.  For the first time, the undemocratic caucuses were replaced by more open nominating ‘conventions’.  First, delegates were elected by the rank-and-file party members from among themselves.  Later, these delegates elected their party’s presidential nominee during the nomination conventions.   While this process genuinely empowered the ordinary party worker, it still could be hijacked by vested party interests.  For example, ex-President Theodore Roosevelt (Republican Party, 1912) and Senator Eugene McCarthy (Democratic Party, 1968) both won the support of the grass roots party members but failed to get party nominations.  They were outmanoeuvred by their party opponents who got nominated as presidential candidates - undemocratically.  Internal party democracy be damned (even if very rarely).

This continued for more than 130 years.  Then, in 1972, came the American Party Democracy (Version 3.0) – ‘the happening edition’.  The task of nominating presidential candidates was taken away from the delegates (thus eliminating last-minute manipulations) and given to the ordinary party members who could now elect their nominee through secret-ballot.  This is how John Kerry became the Democratic Party presidential candidate this year: in a competitive, transparent and democratic process.  In the US, party candidates even for the Senate, House of Representatives and state legislatures are chosen through similarly open and fair democratic nomination processes.

The American political parties reformed their candidate selection processes not necessarily because the parties had very a noble intention to empower their grass-roots workers.  They did it simply to win elections.  Period.  The fact is: what was good for the party member was also good for the party itself.  And good party politics also meant good country politics.

India can learn a thing or two from the American experience.   If our political parties do not bring in genuine internal democracy, no doubt a few party leaders will continue to benefit personally (in the form of entrenched hold over the ticket distribution process, for instance).  But, the entire party itself faces a much greater risk of being rejected by the voting public.   This problem can be solved by selecting party office bearers and candidates on the basis of secret ballot among the party members and workers. This leads to the nomination of better party candidates who have genuine grass-root support and who can better represent the opinions and aspirations of the party workers, supporters and the general public.  Such candidates, who have a much better chance of getting elected, can serve our country as good politicians and leaders.

Bettering internal party democracy is a must for better Indian democracy.