The elevation of Congress veteran Mallikarjun Kharge as party president has drawn a barrage of criticism, with many claiming that he is a proxy of the Gandhi family. But the Congress should be given credit where it is due. In a political landscape where there is no constitutional-legal control over parties, a rare attempt to hold an open election to an organisation’s top post is noteworthy.

A major section of the Congress’s leadership was visibly inclined towards Kharge and frosty to the bid of the other contender, Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor. This fanned allegations that the October 19 election was a one-sided exercise in favour of the “official” candidate. Even so, attempts were made to make it a fair contest, with the party’s election authority accepting Tharoor’s demand for a secret ballot and no one from the Gandhi family openly siding with Kharge.

A lot has been written about the merit and the implications of this election for the Congress, which had not held intra-party elections since 1998. But what of the larger question of the state of inner-party democracy in India?

When does it matter?

The internal affairs of political parties in India remain outside the ambit of the law. Inner-party democracy is largely elusive, not only in the Congress but most parties. Section 29 (a) of the Representation of the People’s Act, 1951, only required political parties to be registered but has no explicit provision to regulate their functioning.

Whether a party is run by a political dynasty or otherwise, crucial decisions about leadership and selecting candidates for elections are taken by a handful of individuals at the helm of the organisation. Though parties claim that the views of lower-level leaders and cadres are taken into consideration, such procedures are informal – meaning that there is no accountability and transparency.

Even though all political parties have a dominant culture of power being centralised, the debate about internal democracy has focussed on the Congress, which has been mired in political despondency and hit with defeats at the ballot box since 2014.

Most parties, especially regional ones, are controlled by powerful political families or dominated by personality cults. Demands for internal elections are rare in parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is in power at the Centre and several states, and for regional parties that are electorally dominant in their territories.

Electoral validation and popular legitimacy eclipses all prerequisites of the accountable functioning of political parties in India. It is only when a party consistently underperforms in elections – like the Congress since 2014 – that the call for accountable functioning reverberates in the public discourse.

Credit: Reuters.

Electoral politics

Winning elections and capturing power is considered to be the fundamental function of political parties rather than ensuring a democratic process and spirit in their functioning.

Some believe that including the voices of the party rank and file as well as local leadership in crucial decisions in a polity as complex as India might lead to chaos, indecision and pave the way for factionalism. There is also the risk that the choice of the party workers may not always be in consonance with the wider electorate.

It is no secret that election candidates are not chosen merely on their records and acceptability within the organisation. Factors such as social identity, the capacity to fund and win elections and loyalty and proximity to the top leadership shape the selection process. The party establishment might not be comfortable leaving these factors to the judgement of the rank and file.

Moreover, there is no assurance that a democratic selection process within the party will invariably mean that these candidates have better electoral prospects. For instance, when Congress leader Rahul Gandhi took over as the party’s vice-president in 2013, he was influenced by the process of primaries in the United States.

Primaries involved registered party voters participating in a process to choose candidates of their choice. The candidate who wins a state primary effectively has the support of the state party delegates. These party delegates will then back that candidate in the party’s national convention held a few months ahead of the election, confirming their nomination to contest the polls.

For the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, Gandhi replicated this model to involve party workers to select Congress candidates in some constituencies. But senior party leaders strongly resisted this model and it did not lead to electoral victories either. Given the discipline and hierarchy that centralised working has imposed on political parties, envisioning alternative models of democratic functioning that will be also electorally successful is challenging.

Personality cult

A fundamental challenge to inner-party democracy in India remains the dominant culture of personality cult and charismatic individual leadership in electoral politics as well as within political parties.

Except the Left parties, all major political parties, at various points of time, have been dominated by the diktats of one or few individuals who command habitual obedience within the organisation.

Even if parties conduct internal elections, the leader is unanimously elected without any contest, or the choice of the party’s top leader invariably influences the process.

In fact, the need for an electoral contest within the Congress only arose after two decades when all three members of the Gandhi family refused to run for the post of party president.

Political observers and others have attributed Kharge’s resounding victory largely to his unquestioned loyalty to the Gandhi family. Given the sycophancy around a leader, it becomes difficult for any other individual to participate in the contest as that would be perceived as a challenge to the authority of the top reader.

Credit: Mallikarjun Kharge @kharge/Twitter.

In addition, even the immediate coterie of the top leadership benefits from the entrenched dominance of the incumbent leader, who may be wary of open elections that might destabilise the power structure within the organisation.

It is imperative for a wider debate to be started about the need for inner-party democracy in India. Inner-party democracy, as evident in many mature democracies, can open the door to allow fresh leadership and new ideas into the organisation. This benefits not only a particular party but also the country’s democratic system as a whole.

Yet, it is easier said than done. The structural realities of India’s political system with a deeply-entrenched culture of personality worship, overcentralisation and preponderance of electoral concerns over democratic procedures remain the biggest stumbling blocks. Still, there is the hope that the Congress’s presidential election will ignite interest on the supremely important but rarely debated issue of inner-party democracy in India.

Ambar Kumar Ghosh is a researcher at Observer Research Foundation and a doctoral candidate at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. His research interests include Indian democracy and its institutions, political leadership and governance.