There cannot be a greater contrast than that between today’s Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party. One is in the midst of a downslide, the other is upbeat. One is literally searching for its leader, the other has no uncertainty about its supreme leader. One is seen to represent all that is wrong with our democratic politics while the other represents the freshness of pro-people politics. Notwithstanding the contrasts, both currently reflect the challenges of running a political party.
Fresh from its Delhi victory, the AAP is facing a critical challenge, which may affect its image and future. The grand old party of India, meanwhile, faces what may be the last challenge it can afford to ignore or underplay. So let us not worry about Arvind Kejriwal and his vipassana. Let us also not worry about Rahul Gandhi’s disappearing trick and his atmachintan. These are only the theatrics, the spectacle, which can entertain some and make the gullible commiserate. But, taken together, the lampooning of the Congress’s young leader and the headlines ripping open the AAP’s internal politics draw attention to three issues concerning the management and functioning of political parties.
One is the extent of homogeneity or factionalism, as the case may be, within a party. Observers and critics tend to believe that a party must be fully united and homogenous. This view disapproves of factions, perhaps forgetting that it is only natural, at least for most mass-based parties, to house several within their fold. This is because such parties come into being, in the first place, through faction formation. A party, thus understood, is a dynamic truce among factions. When the truce ends, the party breaks. At times, the running of a party is but a matter of coordinating the factions and negotiating a truce among them. The critical question is: how does a party handle or negotiate its factions? “Leadership” seems to be the Congress’s answer to that question.
The AAP appears to be veering towards the same answer, but it still wants to believe that internal democracy is its mechanism to resolve factional disputes. In the case of the BJP, many would believe that the Sangh leadership brokers peace between the party factions. So, a party should not be judged on whether it has factions, but on what its faction-management mechanisms are, what political gains they bring (or losses they avoid). While the Congress currently seems to be clueless on this matter, the internal splintering in state after state could enable it to leverage factional competition to make the party more active. This has not happened because much of the factional politics is played out in the Delhi headquarters. This means that factional strength does not build up at the regional level.
The second issue is intra-party democracy. During the Indira Gandhi years, the practice of internal debate was abandoned. The only — weak — instance of its revival is the discussion on coalitions that took place in the 1990s. However, intra-party democracy is not just about debates. By that standard, the communist parties and now even the AAP would fare well, as parties immersed in debate. Intra-party democracy also means the acceptance and coexistence of competing factions. The AAP proudly claimed to bring a different culture to politics. Yet, it presented (before Delhi voters) a personality (Kejriwal) to counter another personality (Narendra Modi). This strategy weakened its claim of winning votes through argument. From its first Delhi victory to the recent one, it was mesmerised by its own leadership. It is good for a party to be proud of its leader, another thing to be completely in thrall. This meant that, while eternally in discussion mode, the AAP actually became a leader-centric party. The latest developments may be described as “democratic” in the sense that the decisions would have been taken by majority or, better still, by “consensus”. We do not have adequate analytical instruments to gauge the “internal democracy” of parties, but what is happening in the AAP is reminiscent of what once used to happen among sincere and principled socialists. It is curious that India’s parties oscillate between chaotic internal relations and the authoritarian grip of a tall leader. The AAP seems to be headed towards combining the extremes while the Congress has lost both scripts by now.
The third issue, which has emerged only in recent years, pertains to media-centric party management. Everyone loves the media. After the spectacles at Jantar Mantar, the Anna Hazare movement and then the AAP adroitly used the media to parachute themselves into the national political scene. So much so that the AAP became a media party. Even now, in its hour of crisis, battles are being fought in and through the media. It seems to provide the party a platform for internal democracy and crisis management. Then came the BJP. Its media blitzkrieg swamped electoral politics in 2013-14. The media became its main campaign platform. In both instances, a media in search of copy and image latched on to the parties. In contrast, the Congress suffered from a media deficit. The media chose to dislike Rahul Gandhi just as strongly as it loved Kejriwal and Modi. For party managers, the fact that the media has become a platform for conducting the party’s affairs may appear to be a boon in the short run. In the long run, it could lead to problems. On one hand, every party activity becomes an event and a spectacle. On the other, the party’s capacity to internally negotiate among its factions is weakened by its reliance on the media.
Both the AAP and the Congress are dependent on mass support, though the former has been trying to combine mass strategies with a cadre-based model of organisation. Second, the core character of both parties is not premised on polarisation but on the reconciliation of social divides. Given these common features, it is natural that these three concerns should haunt them more than they do other parties. The BJP, for example, is different in both respects. It is, ultimately, a party that falls back on a cadre-based parent organisation and believes deeply in community-based social cleavages. Beyond the immediate cases of the Congress and the AAP, there is a larger need to address the challenge of managing party affairs democratically, autonomously and viably. Are our parties ready for that?
The writer teaches political science at Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune.
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