Indian democracy is heavily influenced in its institutional construct, operating procedures and fundamental instincts by Britain’s Westminster model. The extreme diversities of India entailing the divides of race, region, religion, socio-economic status etc. have all been afforded the priceless ‘ventilation’ and empowerment of participative democracy to manage the potential cohabitation-conflicts and aspirations within the sovereign entity. Seventy-two years after Independence, India is still a practising, vibrant and thriving system that prides itself as the ‘world’s largest democracy’.
While political rights and civil liberties are generally respected with timely elections and peaceful transfer of power, yet the Indian variety of democracy is not flawless and suffers certain institutions that are creaking at the joints. Besides the societal malaise of corruption, harassment, censorship and occasional suppression of liberal thought, that are seeping into and vitiating the democratic framework and processes, the evolution of ‘internal democracy’ within the functioning of political parties has been a starkly divergent phenomenon in comparison to its colonial template ~ the British form of parliamentary democracy.
As Britain grapples with its own political twists and trysts relating to its journey towards Brexit, the connection between ‘internal democracy’ and its political culture and parties has been palpable in the accompanying ‘stay’ or ‘leave’ drama. The controversy had started with the previous Prime Minister, David Cameron, keeping his commitment to hold a countrywide referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union. As a staunch advocate of ‘stay’ (within EU), he resigned as the country had voted in favour of ‘leave’ with 51.9 per cent votes as opposed to 48.9 per cent for ‘stay’. Importantly, the run-up to the referendum had seen active campaigning for ‘leave’, even within Mr Cameron’s own Conservative party. It was spearheaded by senior leaders like Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. Even the opposition Labour party, had organised a ‘Labour Leave’ campaign, led by its Eurosceptic members like Graham Stringer and Kelvin Hopkins although the majority of its members were in the ‘stay’ camp.
Essentially, the Brexit issue had democratically divided the politicians on their individual perceptions on the best course for their country, as opposed to toeing the ‘party line’ blindly. Ironically enough, Mr Cameron had Labour Party leaders such as Jeremy Corbyn and Alan Johnson on his side of the ‘stay’ pitch. The role of the party ‘whip’ during the crucial Brexit referendum debate had been virtually non-existent in the midst of a feverish campaign for ‘stay’ or ‘leave’ by bipartisan groups. Importantly, despite 479 MPs across party lines declaring their referendum preference for ‘stay’ and only 158 preferring ‘leave’, Mr Cameron honoured the referendum result, even though it was not legally binding. He said: “The will of the British people is an instruction that must be delivered” Beyond a point, the dissenting opinions of Members of Parliament within a party were not seen as acts of disloyalty or treason to the party or ideology, but only as the free exercise of democratic expression and intellectual opinion i.e. internal democracy within a party.” Contrast this with Indian politics, which is replete with the phenomenon of absolute ‘whips’ that are naturally linked to complete subservience of individual opinion to that of the party’s position. The expression ‘loyal soldier of the party’ is routinely professed to promise the absence of a contrary assertion, to that of the party position. The concept of ‘internal democracy’ is only posited in the public domain to either downplay or defend against the obvious and uncomfortable sound-and-optics of brewing discontent, that are either picked up by the media or by the meddling opposition parties. A uniquely Indian phenomenon of ensuring party discipline is the frequent act of ‘resort-bundling’, wherein the lawmakers are driven to and holed up in safe havens to protect them from ‘horse trading’.
Unlike in Britain, where the individual voices of contrarian positions are well known, the Indian lawmaker often finds his or her ‘conscience’ during the floor vote and is then suitably rewarded for the sudden and unexpected change of heart. In the Indian context, the pejorative prefix of a ‘rebel’ is attached to any lawmaker with a different perspective, and that can endanger the political future of the individual.
The concept of ‘internal democracy’ is scuttled at the very helm of all major political parties in India, as the top positions in the hierarchy are either through selection by ‘consensus’ or by nomination. Second, intraparty democracy is further stifled with an increasingly centralised decision-making culture that is instinctively against transparency, questioning, and presupposes a ‘high command’ that is beyond query or reproach.
Thirdly, Indian politics veers around the concept of individual cults and leader-centricity that naturally militates against any movement to strengthen the democratic processes within a party. The ‘leader’ of a party cannot afford any dilution of his/her absolute say or opinion on a matter.
In Britain, however, politics is less binary and allows for various shades of ‘grey’ on important matters. For instance, within the Brexit ‘leave’ camp, there are various sub-groups of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ Brexiteers. The party leader is less relevant and more easily replaceable, as happened to Mr Cameron who retired from active politics and famously said, “I was the future once”. While his Conservative party is still in power, he has been relegated for having driven the country to the referendum mess.
In India, the politicians do not resign gracefully. Nor for that matter are they driven out by their loyal cadres. On occasion, ‘age constraints’ are made applicable to unwanted senior colleagues in order to consolidate the current leadership’s stranglehold over the party. On the face of it, the deceptive facade of ‘internal democracy’ is maintained. In reality, however, there is a virtual ‘internal dictatorship’ that defines the political sensitivities both in national and regional parties. As in all dictatorships, it is invariably a coup from within that results in a change of guard… and not through democratic processes, preferences or opposition initiatives.
(The writer IS Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry)