State of inner party democracy
By Dr S Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)
Even before completion of the last rites of Jayalalithaa, one of the most popular Chief Ministers the country has seen, speculation was rife over succession to the post held by her. Consensus was reached in astonishing speed evidently to avoid vacuum in governance which could give rise to political/constitutional problems. Any major change would have created endless rumours surrounding the present political situation in Tamil Nadu.
However, behind the scene bargains, calculations, and developments without which it could not have been achieved, are not known to the public. Party leadership, which was also held by Jayalalithaa as the General Secretary since 1989 till her demise, is another crucial issue on which the future of the party rested. Will Sasikala take over the reins as is being reported?
This is always an internal party matter. The final decision will reflect the internal side of the party emerging in the immediate post-Amma period in the AIADMK. The outcome will not only impact the fortunes of the AIADMK, but other parties too particularly its arch rival, the DMK, directly. The two national parties also – the Congress and the BJP – are naturally watching the course of events.
In the country’s party system, leadership has acquired enormous powers over its members from the panchayats to Parliament. It has immense influence over the government wherever it is the ruling party. If the party enjoys majority on its own in the legislature/Parliament and not under the strain of observing “coalition dharma”, party leadership gains additional strength to pull strings from behind the government.
Critics may call this “extra-constitutional authority”, but it is naked exercise of power without responsibility or accountability. Some constitutional experts consider the power of party “high command” over its parliamentary members as unconstitutional.
At the same time, some regional parties which are the ruling party in their States have combined governmental and party leadership. Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress is the head of government as well as the President of her party. Naveen Patnaik is Odisha’s Chief Minister and leader of his party usually referred to as party supremo. Nitish Kumar is the Chief Minister of Bihar and President of JD(U). So also, Jayalalithaa was the head of the government and AIADMK.
From the inner party politics in the post-Amma AIADMK, many lessons may emanate about the functioning of political parties in India and the importance of party leadership. On the basis of our experience in recent decades, it can be stated that the leadership of a party in power carries more power over executive authorities in the government than the Ministers have over their party leadership. The person who captures the party has more assured political future than the one who gets leadership of the government. The former can build solid party support behind him/her. The latter enjoys time bound power and depends on people’s support in general elections and on party’s support for nomination.
This was experienced by the AIADMK in 1989 after the death of MGR, its founder. The party split into two factions – one under MGR’s wife Janaki Ramachandran and the other under Jayalalithaa. The first became Chief Minister and headed a government that lasted only a few days, and the second succeeded in uniting the two divisions and establishing her leadership in the party. Jayalalithaa succeeded in winning the party’s original symbol “two leaves” and won 27 seats while the other faction got only two. She became the General Secretary of the re-united party in 1988. In the next election held in 1991, the AIADMK under Jayalalithaa won a majority and formed the government.
Doubtless, Jayalalithaa’s success throughout her political career was due to her firm hold over the party and its extensive organisational networks. She was the sole master of the party mechanism. In course of years, the leadership of Jayalalithaa was so well established by performance and personal popularity as to create a desire among the party supporters to declare her the “Permanent General Secretary”, and also address her as such – a rare distinction, but making mockery of party election and inner party democracy.
The problem of maintaining cordial relations between party bosses and parliamentary and ministerial wings is solved in different ways by various parties. The common brand is combining leadership in the same hands or dividing it between mutually loyal personalities. Friction between the two in most cases causes split in parties.
Mamata Bannerjee is the head of party as well as government. Mulayam Singh retains party leadership while anointing his son as Chief Minister. Farooq Abdullah is the president of his party who “bequeathed” Chief Ministership to his son. Naveen Patnaik of Biju Janata Dal is both Chief Minister and Party president. So also, Nitish Kumar of JD (U). Exceptions can be found only in cadre-based parties like the Communists and the BJP.
On the whole, leaders of political parties in India have not always emerged through a process of democratic elections and promotion from lower ranks to higher. In some, there is some semblance of election, but contests for party leadership leads to groupism rather than a healthy democratic practice.
Around the world in many democracies, concentration of parliamentary and party leadership in same hands seems common. In Canada, the leader of a party is de facto candidate for the post of Prime Minister. A leadership convention of provincial party delegates, who vote as individuals, is held by a political party to choose its leader. The recent trend in many countries – Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and the UK is to give party members greater say in selecting leaders of their governments.
In India, within the Congress, the relative role of party and parliamentary wings became a controversial question long before Independence. The concept of “high command” emerged in the 1940s. The importance given to the Congress Working Committee was resented by some members of the central and provincial legislatures who insisted that their accountability is directly to the electorate and not to any party.
The conflict persisted after Independence. Even leaders who once believed in the supremacy of the party over the legislatures changed their stand. The dictum that Ministers held office so long as Pradesh Congress Committee allowed them was refuted in the 1950s.
The next decade witnessed reversal of the idea and once again the importance of the organisation to win elections came to be stressed when the Kamaraj Plan was adopted for building organisational strength. Nehru said, “The organisation is the root cause of our being in the government. If the organisation at any time does not want us to be in the government, there the matter ends. ..I am not going to have a general election to have support…”
The crucial issue of the relative powers of the Party President and the Prime Minister again cropped up after Indira Gandhi became PM in 1967. She successfully split the party and established unified control over both government and the ruling party. Developments within the AIADMK are likely to be based on the party’s own history. But the new players cannot produce a carbon copy of the original. The nation has to wait and watch. — INFA