In India, the debate on electoral reforms focuses almost entirely on the funding of political parties and expenses incurred in campaigning, as if taking care of these alone would ensure the cleanup of the nation’s polity. As usual, we are barking up the wrong tree. Funding is a problem, but it is the lesser of the problems. What remains unexamined is the question of inner party democracy and the constitutional functioning of political parties. We never seem to consider whether many of our political parties are in fact political parties or just disorganised assemblies driven by primitive impulses.

When the late Rajiv Gandhi introduced the “anti-defection” bill in Parliament soon after his massive electoral victory in 1984, Madhu Dandavate welcomed it by exclaiming in the Lok Sabha that he felt that he was “hearing to the voice of Jawaharlal Nehru again”. He was to soon realise that the bill was only meant to keep the party under the jackboots of a small coterie. It prompted him to make up for his misplaced initial enthusiasm to append his name to a petition challenging it in the courts. His conversion provoked many to acidly comment that the poor man thought he was hearing Jawaharlal Nehru’s voice when in fact it was Indira Gandhi who was speaking.

My friend Jaipal Reddy at that time publicly welcomed the bill in the Lok Sabha while privately criticising it. He justified his duplicity by saying that it was not the right time to oppose the bill, as public sentiment was in favour it. Only Chandrashekhar and Madhu Limaye had the vision and courage to attack the bill for what it was – an attempt to institutionalise the illegitimate power of undemocratically installed party leaderships over the elected representatives of the people. The original bill was then somewhat modified to distinguish between a split and a defection, even though it did not address what were the main reasons for opposing the bill.

Non-constitutional arrangements

The Indian Constitution does not recognise the institution of political parties. It is the same with the other serious and major democracies of the world, whose constitutions don’t mention the term “political party” even once. Political parties are therefore extra or non-constitutional arrangements to organise people on the basis of shared ideas, philosophies, perceptions and interests. Members of Parliament or legislatures are representatives of the people. That they are or are not members of a political party is only incidental. The elected members are intended to represent and protect the interests of the people who elect them and not that of a handful of leaders.

It follows that if a representative defies the party whip the most the party must be allowed to do is to remove the member from the party. Expulsion of the member from the house can only be the right of the house or the people. Each time that power is invoked it must be for a specific reason such as receiving a bribe, which may be considered to be unbecoming of a member, or an act that brings disrespect to the institution. In our case we do not give the people the right of recall, possibly because it is not practical. Even if a mechanism and a set of conditionalities were codified to set the process of recall into action, who among the present crop of MPs would be willing to legislate this?

The argument that most members are elected because of the party has some validity, but only if it is a justly constituted and functioning party. If the political party is to be incorporated in our Constitution as a constitutional institution, it must first be so legislated. Except for a few parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which have a somewhat credible system of inner democracy assured by regular and reasonably fair party elections, and consensual and collective decision-making, most other parties are poor examples of democracy at work. We know how the Congress party conducts its “elections” or makes decisions by deferring them to the “High Command”.

“Leaders” like Thackeray, Badal, Lalu Yadav, Karunanidhi, Jayalalithaa, Mulayam Singh and Mayawati, among others, consider these niceties to be sheer hypocrisy and as such do not have even a single-page constitution to legitimise the workings of their parties. Yet these fuehrers have the authority and legitimacy to issue a diktat or a whip to suit their private interests and whims. Remember how a nominated Congress President, Sitaram Kesri, issued a directive to the elected leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party, PV Narasimha Rao, ordering him to send his resignation within 24 hours. Consider the implications of this. A leader chosen by popularly elected representatives is dismissed in a handpicked courtier’s coup.

Empowering Election Commission

There are other implications to consider as well. What if a member of a party promising people the nationalisation of all property is directed to vote for a rich man’s dream budget? Suppose the member was to vote as per the party’s commitment to the people and not as per the convenience of its leaders? Who is more important? The people who elected the member or the people who selected the member for a party ticket? The argument that if members are not restrained by law, anarchy will prevail may still have some validity to it. But this demand can be met by ensuring that whips are restricted to votes of confidence alone, with the rider that representatives voting against a whip must seek the confidence of the people within a stipulated period, say six months. To deny a ministership to a “defecting” member is silly as it implies that a ministership is somehow a reward to enjoy and not a call to service or recognition of ability. Not all ministers are corrupt. Similarly all this hair-splitting about what percentage constitutes a defection is equally silly.

That the Election Commission recognises these parties and recognises the authority of its leaders is a matter of shame and evidence of its utter helplessness or indifference or ignorance or all of these basic issues. To give the anti-defection laws even the thinnest veneer of political and philosophical legitimacy, it is first essential that inner party workings conform to the letter and spirit of democracy. Parties have shown that they are incapable of doing this by themselves. The Election Commission has made some noises in this regard. But adding to the cacophony is not enough. It must speak out loudly and insist that Parliament empowers it to oversee regular party elections and their compliance with the provisions of their registered constitutions.

State funding of political parties has often been discussed as one solution. But can we allow the state to fund the political parties that do not have any inner party democracy or democratic structures, most of which have husband and wife “high commands”, if not father-son or mother-son “high commands”? No Indian party has anything like fair and free inner party elections. Giving them state funding will only make public money serve private purposes. With our democracy preferring cobbled up coalitions to single party dominance, the issue of defections will always loom large. But my friend Jaipal Reddy who is now in the Congress will not speak up. He will no doubt rationalise once again that this is not the time. Of course it is not. Kissa kursi ka hai.