<b>Parties: By ideology and personality</b>

Parties: By ideology and personality

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The shashtipoorthi of Indian Parliamentary Democracy

TVR Shenoy

$img_titleI want to make three points. First, that Indian democracy has strayed so far from the British model that it would not even be recognised as democracy in the United Kingdom. Second, that India is rapidly moving toward autocratic government, which is indistinguishable from monarchy in actual practice. Third, that this move was inevitable because it is not parliamentary democracy but monarchy that is in India’s cultural DNA.
Nobody marked the occasion but 2012 marks the sixtieth anniversary of that occasion, and the Shashtipoorthi is considered a significant event in India, a time to look back and reflect.
I want to make three points. First, that Indian democracy has strayed so far from the British model that it would not even be recognised as democracy in the United Kingdom. Second, that India is rapidly moving toward autocratic government, which is indistinguishable from monarchy in actual practice. Third, that this move was inevitable because it is not parliamentary democracy but monarchy that is in India’s cultural DNA.
We have moved very far from the British model. What exactly is that model? The British Constitution is like the English language, it is a body of tradition built over centuries rather than a single document. However, over time these traditions have gained the status of unchangeable fundamental principles. Let me cite three precedents.
In 1801 William Pitt the Younger resigned from the Prime Ministership. For the first time in British history, every member of the Cabinet lost office along with the Prime Minister. The previous practice, going back all the way to Robert Walpole, the first recognised Prime Minister in 1721, had been that ministers held their office from the monarch, with little allegiance to either Parliament or Prime Minister.
In 1880 the Liberals defeated the Conservatives in a General Election. Queen Victoria, who disliked William Gladstone, invited Granville and then Harrington to form a ministry on the grounds that they had led the Liberals in the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Both refused, saying Gladstone had led the election campaign, and it was thus he alone who possessed the people’s mandate. This cemented the tradition that the electorate alone could decide their chief executive through the medium of elections.
In 1922 the Conservative Prime Minister Bonar Law resigned after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. The options to replace him were the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Stanley Baldwin, and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon. The choice fell on Baldwin because there was a general feeling that it was no longer possible to have a Prime Minister sitting in the House of Lords.
I am deliberately confining myself to British constitutional developments that took place before the watershed year of 1947. Please remember that a very large number of the members of the Constituent Assembly were lawyers, some of whom had studied constitutional law. And all of them, lawyers or not, were familiar with British parliamentary traditions.
What were these traditions? First, the Prime Minister is the effective head of the government, and that the ministers answer to the Parliament rather than to any monarch. Second, voters have the right to state their preference for a Prime Minister through elections, and that this privilege is not shared with any king or queen. Third, the Prime Minister belongs to the Lower House, because that is the chamber which is directly elected by the people.
These constitutional principles were taken for granted by 1947, so much so that the Constituent Assembly did not even see the necessity to write them down in the Constitution. Can anyone say that these principles have not been repeatedly violated in India?
A good deal of the blame for this rests with our political formations. With two major exceptions, India’s parties are essentially feudal. There is little or no internal democracy, and they are run as monarchies. These monarchies have taken two shapes, that of absolute autocracy where power is vested in a single person, and that of dynasty, where power is shared by members of a single family. This lack of inner-party democracy means that our political parties have no respect for democracy in general, and do a poor job of defending democratic traditions. And a particular abuse of the parliamentary traditions that our founding fathers took for granted is the movement of power away from the Lok Sabha, the House of the People.
Let me start by pointing to the exceptions; standing at either end of the ideological spectrum, they are the BJP and the CPI(M). (There are others, such as the CPI, but they are minor players.) To show how they are unique let me use a low point in their histories.
In 1996 Jyoti Basu, the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, was invited to become the Prime Minister of a United Front government. Harkishen Singh Surjeet, the CPI(M) general-secretary, was eager to accept the offer. But the CPI(M) Politburo turned down the proposal. When Basu and Surjeet took it to a larger body the Central Committee also voted against it.
In 2012 Nitin Gadkari, the BJP president, supported two outsiders, first Babu Singh Kushwaha in Uttar Pradesh, and later Anshuman Mishra in Jharkhand. These decisions had to be rolled back because Gadkari’s colleagues objected.
Jyoti Basu described his party’s decision as an “historic blunder”. That is a debate for another day, but they are certainly rare examples of innerparty democracy in India. Neither the president of the BJP nor the CPI(M) general-secretary can take his colleagues for granted, nor bulldoze them into compliance. Can you imagine these events happening in any other major party?
Anis Ahmad Khan was Uttar Pradesh’s Minorities Welfare Minister in the Mayawati Cabinet. The Lokayukta, NK Mehrotra, found that Khan had diverted local development funds to a family trust; the Lokayukta recommended recovering over Rs 94 lakh. Mayawati sacked him, and the Congress immediately gave him the party ticket for Bisalpur.
There was an immediate outcry after Babu Singh Kushwaha, also one of Mayawati’s tainted former ministers, entered the BJP fold. Not one Congressman dared to peep after the party leadership accepted Anis Ahmad Khan.
For the record, Bisalpur’s voters turned down the newly-minted Congressman, and the BJP’s Ram Saran Varma polled double the number of votes as his opponent.
Both the BJP and the CPI(M) are ideological parties, where the party cadres’s ultimate allegiance is to a set of beliefs, not to one or more individuals. This enables members to stand up to even the most prominent leaders within that party if those leaders are seen deviating from principle. Other Indian political parties lack the anchor of ideology, but this does not give freedom of action; instead it only chains the ordinary Party worker to the whims of the so-called “Party High Command” (a sadly familiar phrase in Indian political journalism).
Moving away from the exceptions, let us turn to the generality. As I said earlier, most major Indian parties are monarchies in disguise. Five of them have absolute monarchs, the rest prefer a dynasty.
The five autocracies are the AIADMK, the Biju Janata Dal, the Trinamool Congress, the Bahujan Samaj Party, and the Janata Dal (United).
The AIADMK and the Biju Janata Dal are relatively market-friendly. The Trinamool Congress tries to be more leftist than the Left Front. The leadership of the Janata Dal (United) may be more polished than that of the Bahujan Samaj Party. But the five share two common characteristics.
First, each party functions as an extension of the supreme leader. Second, there is no room for a designated heir apparent, nor even for any lesser power centre. Should these be doubted, can anyone name a Number Two in any of these parties, even in Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United)?
Autocracies can be amazing flexibile. Jayalalithaa was against the Koodankulam nuclear project up to February; today she has given it the green signal. Mamata Banerjee was Railway Minister under Atal Behari Vajpayee; she was Railway Minister again under Manmohan Singh. At no point does anyone in the party question these decisions. That is the nature of autocracy, the ability to turn on a coin based on the supreme leader’s interest. Or even on the supreme leader’s whim.
This does not mean autocracies cannot offer good governance. Mayawati and her Bahujan Samaj Party are on the political back foot just now after the loss in the Uttar Pradesh elections, but she was probably the best Chief Minister that Uttar Pradesh had in twenty years. She restored a measure of law and order after five years of “Goonda Raj”. She oversaw the construction of some truly excellent highways and other infrastructure. And, frankly, Mayawati’s monuments are no worse than some of the vanity projects named after the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
There is a Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi. There is a Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Chennai. There is a Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Indore. There is a Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Guwahati. There is a Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Shillong. There is a Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Coimbatore. There is a Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Pune. And on my way from the airport I drove past the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi.
For the record, Jawaharlal Nehru was not responsible for building any of them! Can you say that Mayawati is anywhere near as bad as the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’s sycophants?
Let me also point out that Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu, Naveen Patnaik in Odisha, and Nitish Kumar in Bihar regularly make the list of India’s best Chief Ministers. This may be because of the poor calibre of the Opposition they face but it is also a testimony to their administrative prowess.
Some have argued, notably in Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, that the best form of government is a benevolent despotism. This, arguably, is what the citizens of Tamil Nadu, of Odisha, and of Bihar currently enjoy.
Benevolent despots are mortal like the rest of humanity. This raises the question of who shall occupy the throne once the autocrat passes from the scene. Neither Jayalalithaa, nor Naveen Patnaik, nor Nitish Kumar have encouraged the rise of a political heir, possibly for fear of a coup. This failure to prepare for the eventual succession is what keeps these three, and others like them, from rulers of the highest calibre.

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