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Party gamesmanship

What some call ‘factionalism’ is actually healthy negotiation and deliberation — the soul of intra-party democracy.

Written by Suhas Palshikar |
June 30, 2011 12:54:10 am

Critics of India’s political parties often draw attention to their utter lack of organisational mechanisms and intra-party democracy. Parties are always seen as being the monopoly of a small coterie. Indeed,political parties themselves use the same descriptions to criticise each other! In this backdrop,a re-reading of the Munde episode that recently beset the main opposition party,the BJP,could be instructive of what does not ail our political parties.

While it is easy to pour ridicule on the BJP for the plight in which it found itself,we need to realise that running and managing a national party with a mass base is a gigantic challenge. Losing a Munde may be a blow for the BJP in Maharashtra,just as losing a Jaganmohan can be a blow to the Congress in Andhra. Both the BJP and Congress chose to act tough with their dissidents.

If one does not adopt the moral high ground,and sit in judgement and decide who is right and who is wrong,here is a fascinating dilemma: if the party caves in to demands by Munde (or Jaganmohan),the leadership loses authority and the wrong message goes out to the rank and file. If,on the other hand,the party acts tough,it runs the risk of losing the dissident leader and her or his followers. Besides,to the extent politics is about symbols and tokens,such action is easily translated as injustice to a certain constituency — in Munde’s case,OBCs.

Critics of India’s political parties will say that this complication arises in the first place because of the absence of well-settled norms for running an organisation. In other words,the burden of the argument is often that our political parties are organisationally flawed; they do not have mechanisms for sorting out such disputes; and worse,they lack internal democracy. We should perhaps give a more careful and sympathetic attention to what goes on in our political parties.

In newly established parties,the leadership overwhelms everything. It is also possible that parties that limit themselves to specific regional terrain are more easily controlled by just one leader. It is also true that towering and authoritarian leadership does emerge from time to time in many political parties. And yet,the Munde episode is instructive to disabuse ourselves of at least some parts of the conventional argument.

That episode was caused by rivalry between Munde and the BJP’s national president,Nitin Gadkari,which goes back to the state from which both of them hail — Maharashtra. Both have been trying to outwit the other by mobilising support within the party,and by managing to get their own followers appointed as key party functionaries. The same happens in the case of distribution of tickets. During most of the ’90s,both were state-level players,and over time started nursing ambitions to make it big in Delhi. To any observer of Indian politics,this would be a routine matter,and described as “factionalism”. While to those who never join and run political parties,factionalism is a dirty word,party politics is all about groups and factions. It is only natural that political players build their support base,then try to gain control over the party and start claiming a share in what the party can distribute. That is all competitive politics is about.

That all the details of the Munde episode spilled out into the public domain was mainly due to the intense media attention such developments attract. This is both unavoidable and somewhat welcome in an open democratic society. So,how has the BJP been handling the issue?  Nobody denied that Munde was sulking (and one should not grudge the right to be dissatisfied with the distribution of power within the party). The party then tried to sort this out through a series of parleys,both between Munde and some top party leaders,and among the party leaders themselves. Munde brought pressure to bear by making moves to shift to another party,and also by threatening to hurt the party organisation in his home state. Then there was some counter-pressurising; and finally,at least for the moment,Munde had to beat a strategic retreat,though he is far from quiet or pacified.

So the intra-party competition will certainly continue. All these are the signs of a living (though chaotic) political organisation. Competition,power struggles and negotiations mark the life of political parties.

This is not to give a certificate to any one political party. It is helpful to understand that political parties in India do not entirely lack intra-party democracy or intra-party negotiations; they do not lack deliberative mechanisms — albeit of a less bureaucratised or routinised nature.

This same process can be seen in the case of the other large political party,the Congress. Whether it is the Jaganmohan episode or the famous spat between Chidambaram and Digvijaya Singh on the Maoist issue,it is necessary that we read the unfolding drama in the right perspective.

This is not to say that all is well with our parties. Yet,it is necessary that we first decide what is not a core issue when critiquing them. The extent of negotiation,and the style or mechanism for dispute resolution,will vary from party to party — but let us not trap ourselves into incorrectly criticising parties as having no intra-party democracy. Such criticisms stem from sanitised ideas of party functioning based on the experience of very small-scale and only nominally mass-based parties in the Western democracies.

 

The writer teaches political science at the University of Pune

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