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Explained: What Is Meant By Intra-Party Democracy And Why Must More Political Parties Adhere To It?

Presently, there is no statutory backing for internal democratic regulation of political parties in India and the only governing provision is under Section 29A of the Representation of the Peoples’ Act, 1951.

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Inner-party democracy in India
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The nation awaits closely the All India Congress Committee presidential polls that are due to be held on October 17, in a step that could hint at a massive overhaul of the party’s internal functioning and its possible revival in India’s current political landscape.  

Congress presidential candidate Shashi Tharoor on Saturday slammed Bhartiya Janata Party's IT department head Amit Malviya over his dig at the AICC chief elections, saying “we are perfectly capable of resolving our own internal differences” and don't need his involvement in the polls. Tharoor also took a swipe at the BJP and said try to hold an election of “your own first.” Here’s a look at what inner-party democracy entails and why more political parties should walk down this path.

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What do we mean by intra-party democracy?

Theoretically, democracy is safeguarded by its two offshoots: procedural democracy and substantive democracy. While procedural democracy covers all aspects intrinsic to the “practice” of democracy : universal adult franchise, periodic elections, principle of secret ballot etc.; substantive democracy is the “core set of beliefs” crucial in a well functioning democracy and includes intra-party democracy.  

Intra-party democracy then refers to simply establishing a set of rules within political parties which promotes a bottom up approach to decision making. It does so while ensuring an effective distribution of power amongst the party functionaries to enable inclusivity and participation of diverse persons. 

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Why is it necessary to promote intra-party democracy?

Political parties in India are essentially regarded as representatives of the people, for the people and by the people. Ensuring fair and transparent internal functioning of parties ensures that democracy functions with the people too since Indians’ perception of politics is so closely tied to one's perception of party politics. 

Trust deficit and Hero worship 

To begin with, inner-party democracy enhances the ‘visibility’ of fair and transparent procedures in selecting leaders within political parties which counters a general trust deficit amongst the public. In the absence of such a provision, parties often tend to be centred around charismatic figures which can foster blind hero worship as one individual becomes central to the power, vision, and authority in the party’s agenda. 

To this end, the father of our Constitution, Dr. B.R Ambedkar once cautioned against such predispositions and even expressed scepticism towards the idea of one man-one vote based democracy in India, stating that “In politics, Bhakti or hero worship is a sure road to degradation and eventual dictatorship.”   

Inclusive representation 

Secondly, the opaque nature of selecting party candidates also runs the risk of excluding marginalised groups. For instance, the BJP was severely criticised for not fielding a single candidate in the 2022 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, despite Muslims accounting for nearly 17% of the total state population. 

Likewise, a report published by The Hindu highlighted that out of the approximately 8,000 candidates who contested for the 543 seats in 2019 Lok Sabha elections, merely 716 were women candidates, which is historically the highest figure for women’s participation in elections since 1957. Dalits and other underprivileged sections too remain underrepresented and thus excluded from decision making and power structures in Indian society. It leads to a denial of equality of status and of opportunity, that is entrenched in our Constitutional scheme. 

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Criminalisation of politics

The transparency deficit in selecting candidates within political parties becomes a breeding ground for criminalisation in Indian politics. According to data released by the Association for Democratic Reforms, the 17th Lok Sabha holds the infamous record of 43% members facing criminal charges against them, including allegations of serious offences such as rape, murder, robbery, criminal intimidation, hate speech etc. This marks a 109% increase as compared to the 16th Lok Sabha in the number of criminals in our legislature. 

With candidatures based on the whims of certain political heads, mere winnability becomes the sole criterion for fielding certain candidates, as those with significant money and muscle power can easily indulge in gerrymandering of the voter base. Taking note of this “alarming increase” in the criminalisation of politics, the Supreme Court in February 2020 had mandated political parties to specify the reasons for fielding candidates with criminal antecedents “with reference to qualifications, achievements and merit of the candidate concerned.”

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Safeguard against dynastic politics

Intra-party democracy is also integral for promoting freedom of speech and dissent within the political parties. Many political commentators opined that not only were dynastic politics and nepotism behind the Congress’ political downfall, but these trends are also to blame for an uproar within the party ranks. For instance, in August 2020, veteran congress leaders publicly expressed their estrangement with the party, forming the group of 23, or the G 23 that demanded an organisational overhaul of the party’s internal structures. One of INC’s popular leaders, Kapil Sibal, called this initiative as a collective protest by those who are “not a Jee Huzur 23” in the party. A wave of protest has led to this week’s much awaited presidential polls. 

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Counters factionalism

Democratising political parties can also work as a safety valve against factionalism and splits in parties. Various incidents of internal party rivalry have culminated in splits, for instance, Mamata Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress, and more recently, the split in Shiv Sena owing to differences between Uddhav Thackeray and Eknath Shinde. 

So what is the current politico-legal framework for inner-party democracy in India?

Presently, there is no statutory backing for internal democratic regulation of political parties in India and the only governing provision is under Section 29A of the Representation of the Peoples’ Act, 1951 which entails registration of political parties with the Election Commission of India. However, the ECI’s power to require parties to hold regular internal elections for office bearers and candidate selection is compromised in the absence of any penal provisions.

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Reports from the 2nd Administrative Reforms Commission, the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution and the Law Commission have both recommended introducing statutes to enforce internal democracy for political parties. 

(With inputs from PTI)

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