Spiriting the letter —A G Noorani

We have democratic Constitutions run by undemocratic parties. The party’s “supreme” leader awards party tickets and legislators are his bondsmen. The result is political stagnation

“Just as American capitalism allows companies to die, and to be created, quickly, so its political system reacts fast. In Europe, political leaders emerge slowly, through party hierarchies; in America, the primaries permit inspirational unknowns to burst into the public consciousness from nowhere.”

The Economist’s comment on July 26, 2008, was correct in so far as it went, but the Presidential primaries are not the only channels through which fresh blood flows into the American political system. The political parties are governed democratically. Aspirants to the party tickets for the Senate, House of Representatives, the Governorship and membership of the State Legislatures do seek the support of party bosses but they are not completely dependent on them. They can appeal over their heads to the rank and file of registered party members. This explains the Obama phenomenon.

Nor is The Economist altogether right about Europe. In Britain itself, party members have as a rule a decisive voice in the award of the party ticket for election to the House of Commons and to the local bodies. The three major political parties are organised constituency-wise. Applications are received and short-listed. The chosen few appear before the Executive to offer their views. The candidate is elected by ballot. Of course, the National Executive’s endorsement is necessary. But it is seldom refused. More, constituency parties tend to reject who they regard as the National Executive’s man.

The result is that the MP is not the leader’s stooge. He derives his strength from the Constituency and he therefore has the capacity to rebel during a vote in the House of Commons. There are cases of such rebels securing renewed support from the Constituency party at the next election. The National Executive cannot be seen to be vindictive. He gets the party ticket.

The path for an aspirant is clear – acquire success in his vocation, note in the constituency, and acquire a profile, an image. If he has the talent and is not unlucky, no one can stop him.

In India and Pakistan, the new faces which have appeared in the political field are ones who hitched their wagons to the star of a political leader; became his supporters and flourished. Party tickets for elections are awarded by the party bosses who also collect and control the funds. The legislator lacks even the capacity to rebel. He can, of course, defect – to another party boss.

India’s Chief Election Commissioner, S L Shakhdhar accurately described the situation as far back as on September 26, 1980:

“Political parties make strong demands for the conduct of free and fair elections to legislative bodies, but choose to ignore the application of the same principles when it comes to the functioning of their own party organs. It has been revealed before me in various cases that I had occasion to hear that parties do not follow their own constitutions. They hold no party elections. They function for years on an ad hoc basis. Sometimes there has been a tyranny of the minority over the majority because of undemocratic functioning and other practices. A few persons in a party occupying the vantage position in the apex body, quite often strangulate the democratic functioning and aspirations of the members of the party at the grass roots and keep the party under their strict control.”

Later in the year, he presented his Report on the General Elections of 1980 and repeated his criticism in this formal document which he presented to Parliament. He listed three major defects in that Report. One was that “even the observance of the basic provisions of the Constitution of the party is absent”; the second was the failure to hold organisational elections for years; the last was the lack of accountability “to the highest organ consisting of the general body of members.” These defects so accurately and so authoritatively described continue still.

This warps the working of the Constitution. In an article in Time and the Times of London on January 18, 1940, Quaid-e Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah asked the Congress: “Is it their desire that the Central and Provincial Governments should be responsible not to their legislatures or to the electorate but to a caucus, unknown to the Constitution, the Working Committee of the Constitution?”

Truth to tell other political parties emulated the Congress’ example. Unless a provincial leader has strong clout, the Chief Minister is nominated by the Central leadership. In Indira Gandhi’s time, India had “ready-made” Chief Ministers nominated by her and accepted “unanimously “by the State Legislature Party. Even Prime Ministers have been nominated by party bosses after much confabulation.

Parliamentary democracy requires that (a) the legislator derive his strength from the electorate, not from bosses outside; (b) the legislators so elected in turn elect their leader; (c) the leader is responsible only to his legislature party – subject of course to the party leadership’s disciplinary powers if he flouts the party policy and programme; and (d) the leader has a free choice in forming his Cabinet and in advising the head of State to dissolve the legislature.

Do these conditions exist in South Asia? We have democratic Constitutions run by undemocratic parties. The party’s “supreme” leader awards party tickets and legislators are his bondsmen. The result is political stagnation. Promising persons with self-respect are deterred. How many of the new faces in India’s or Pakistan’s politics have come to the fore without latching themselves to the leader?

The architect of India’s Constitution, Dr BR Ambedkar warned the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949, “however good a Constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it happen to be a bad lot. However bad a Constitution may be, it may turn out to be good if those who are called to work it happen to be a good lot. The working of a Constitution does not depend wholly upon the nature of the Constitution. The Constitution can provide only the organs of the State such as the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. The factors on which the workings of these organs of the State depend are the people and the political parties they will set up as their instruments to carry out their wishes and their politics. Who can say how the people of India and their parties will behave?”

The people are not to blame. The politicians are responsible for political stagnation. They dread democratic infusion of new blood in to the parties they run.

A G Noorani is a prominent lawyer and a commentator on regional affairs


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