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As Congress mulls next president, the flip side of inner party democracy

US and UK parties have internal elections to choose leaders. But that has both pros and cons.

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One of the big conundrums of Indian democracy that agitates political observers and commentators is the lack of internal democracy in all political parties. When the Indian republic has been served very well by its ardent commitment to democratic ideals, the notion that all political parties have eschewed inner party democracy confounds observers. Recent incidents in more mature democracies may provide some clues to explain.

Internal competition in US and UK

American President Joe Biden is helping former President Donald Trump. Farcical as it may sound, it is a true statement, albeit not the whole truth.

Both Biden’s Democratic Party and Trump’s Republican Party have robust inner party democracy to choose candidates and leaders through ‘primaries’ where registered voters of the party vote in an internal election. The Republican Party now is strongly divided between the pro-Trump faction and the anti-Trump faction. Its rival Democratic Party has sensed that general voters prefer an anti-Trump candidate and hence it is in its best interests to face a pro-Trump candidate in the mid-term elections. So, they are explicitly pumping resources and money to pro-Trump candidates in the primaries to help them defeat anti-Trumpers. Which seems to be working well so far. Eight out of the 11 anti-Trump candidates have lost. In short, a competing political party has meddled with and exploited the internal democratic process of its rival to its advantage.

“All your bills are going up and up and up. Taxes have risen to highest levels in 70 years. We are predicted to have a recession. You make promises you can’t keep. The worst crisis for a generation. Why should the public trust you?”

These are public statements made by senior leaders of the Conservative Party about the current economic situation in the UK. The only problem is that they are castigating their own party that has been in power for the last 12 years! Sure enough, the opposition Labour Party released a video of all these statements with the title ‘How do the Tories think they are doing?’ that went viral, causing further embarrassment to the Conservatives.

These statements were made by Conservative leaders during a public debate among all candidates in an internal party election to select the next leader of the party and thus, the prime minister. First, the party’s Members of Parliament (MP) shortlist the top two candidates among all aspirants and then nearly 150,000 registered members of the party vote to elect their next leader. To most, this is an appealing and healthy inner-party democratic process. Except, it can backfire, as it has done for the Conservative Party.

Also read: Rahul Gandhi embraces his lineage as ‘family of sacrifice’, calls out obsessive Congress-haters

The complication

A healthy internal democracy implies a competitive electoral process to choose its next leader, which will inevitably lead to mudslinging and bare talk about the state of the party and maligning other party leaders. All these can be rich fodder for the opposition to dent the party’s standing among the wider public.

The further complication is that the MPs’ candidate of choice is different from the party members’ choice, which in turn may be different from the candidate preferred by the wider public. If the party’s membership is in dissonance with the public, then such an internal election will throw up a leader who may not resonate as well with the voters as some other party leader, and end up weakening the party rather than strengthening it.

Also read: Rishi Sunak to Priti Patel, UK PM race shows it’s a mature democracy. India’s not even close

The Indian conundrum

The Congress party in India is currently in the middle of an internal organisational process to choose its next president. Before you start imputing motives, let me clarify that I fully support the idea of an internal election to choose the next leader, if necessary. The risks of manipulation of an internal election by rival parties or external agents are real. Like the Conservative Party, there is the added risk of the Congress party’s membership base or electoral college not being truly reflective of the wider public’s opinions. It can also further divide an already weakened party. Nevertheless, an internal vote can also energise the party’s rank and file through participation in an election spectacle and legitimise the choice of the leader. This can be an invaluable benefit for the Congress in its current situation, far outweighing the risks.

The examples from the US and the UK present a counter to the much-vaunted appeal of internal democracy within political parties, generally acclaimed to be a holy grail. In fact, there has been a clamour by the UK media commentators to do away with the internal election of the party and have a group of MPs choose the next prime minister. But choosing a party’s leader when in power, like the Conservative Party now, is entirely different from electing a leader when not in power. The legitimacy that a vibrant internal election bestows on an elected leader of a political party is a clear and huge argument in its favour. There are several nuances, complexities and ‘realpolitik’ factors to consider before indulging in a public display of internal elections.

Regardless, it is amply evident that inner party democracy is neither the panacea for all ills plaguing Indian politics nor the magic pill to strengthen the institution of India’s political parties, as it is purported to be. Different parties in India need to adopt and tailor practices to choose their leader in accordance with their specific situation and time. There is no one formula. Perhaps, that is why, in a still frail and fledgling democracy like India where even elected leaders are bought and sold, like shares on a stock exchange, no political party has dared to attempt a full-fledged internal election to choose its leaders, save for the Indian Youth Congress.

Praveen Chakravarty is a political economist and a senior office bearer of the Congress party. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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