Suhas Palshikar gave sound advice to those who wish to set up and run political parties in an appropriately titled article, ‘How to have a good party’ (IE, October 24). The article was followed, the next day, by Sanjaya Baru advising “an institute of management education” to start “a course on managing family-based political parties.” Having spent a major part of my professional life in “an institute of management education” and as an observer of political parties for some time, I could not help thinking about this issue.
There seem to be three types of political parties in India — family-run, coterie-run and individual-run. The labels are self-explanatory and there seems to be no political party that falls outside this classification. All of them seem to be blissfully innocent of the fact that political parties are, at their root, supposed to be instruments of democracy. And instruments of democracy cannot be undemocratic. This issue was addressed in a column in this paper five years ago (‘Can undemocratic parties serve a democratic nation?’ IE, September 16, 2011).
What the 2011 piece did not point out was that this issue has engaged the attention of the Law Commission of India as far back as 1999. The commission’s comments in para 184.108.40.206 of its 170th report is worth reproducing in full: “On the parity of the above reasoning, it must be said that if democracy and accountability constitute the core of our constitutional system, the same concepts must also apply to and bind the political parties which are integral to parliamentary democracy. It is the political parties that form the government, man the Parliament and run the governance of the country. It is therefore necessary to introduce internal democracy, financial transparency and accountability in the working of the political parties. A political party which does not respect democratic principles in its internal working cannot be expected to respect those principles in the governance of the country. It cannot be a dictatorship internally and democratic in its functioning outside.”
It should not matter whether the party is family-run, coterie-run and individual-run, so long as it has at least a semblance of democracy in its internal functioning. Political parties will not become internally democratic by exhortations of political scientists and political commentators. For this, they need, what a former judge of the US Supreme Court, Justice David Souter, referred to as “civic knowledge” in a TV discussion. Souter was commenting four years ago and his remarks are being replayed in the US now as the country’s electorate faces what is perceived by many to be a difficult choice. Souter recollected the remarks of Benjamin Franklin, often referred to as “one of the founding fathers” of the US. When asked what kind of a nation would the country’s constitution create, Franklin replied, “a republic, if you can keep it.” Souter went on to say, “democracy cannot survive civic ignorance.”
Therefore, a necessary condition for democracy to survive and to make political parties internally democratic is pressure from citizens. For this, what is needed is “education for citizenship”. So, whether “an institute of management education” starts “a course on managing family-based political parties” or not, it is necessary that institutions of education pay attention to ensuring that their students acquire some knowledge of what it takes to be a responsible citizen.
Democracy in the country will survive only if political parties are democratic in their internal functioning. Political parties will become democratic in their internal functioning only if citizens demand that. Citizens will demand that only if they have what Justice Souter called “civic knowledge” or “education for citizenship”. So, while one can intervene at every level, the most basic interventions are required at the level of schools and colleges. This may appear to be a long haul but there really are no shortcuts.
The writer is former professor, dean, and director in-charge of IIM, Ahmedabad. Views are personal.