The arguments in favor of internal democracy in political parties do not need to be remade. It is obvious that the institutional intermediaries in a representative democracy must themselves be democratic. However, beyond rhetoric, internal democracy in a political party is less straightforward.
Democratic accountability in a political party is qualitatively different from that in a country. A political party is a collaborative platform to seize the power of the state in order to realize a certain vision of society. It follows that certain ideas and ideals are at the heart of a political party and its members. This common point does not exist in a country since citizenship is not an elective choice. In a country, there are clear differences between citizens on the vision and values themselves and the role of democracy is not only to create a framework for negotiating conflicts, but to ensure that the state is representative of the majority of the electorate through periodic elections. So while democracy at the country level is a bottom-up opportunity to completely change leadership, democratic accountability within a political party exists within an ideological framework. Any suggestion to achieve internal democracy in a political party should be assessed in this context.
The most common suggestion for achieving internal democracy is to organize internal elections for leadership positions within the party. The logic is twofold: elected officials will not only be entrenched, but will also hold leadership accountable for its shortcomings. This suggestion has merit, but some questions merit discussion. First, proponents underestimate the ability of existing power holders to subvert internal institutional processes to consolidate power and maintain the status quo. Second, the assumption that lower levels are independent and hold higher levels of leadership to account obscures the many ways in which power asserts itself. Rather, the likely outcome is alignment at all levels to allow for a vertical consolidation of faction power. Third, the outcome of internal elections depends on the independence and quality of the electorate. In indirect elections (through delegates), the electorate would likely reflect the existing balance of power. In direct elections, there is a concern for ideological dilution and / or capture by opportunist membership. Donald Trump hijacking the Republican Party through the primaries is a recent example. Democratic states constrain the pure will of the “people” through constitutional checks and it is reasonable to apply safeguards for ideological platforms.
It is obvious that internal elections can divide power but cannot establish normative responsibility, which extends to all party members along three interconnected axes of ideology, organization and competence. Normative accountability is therefore rooted in a dynamic context and is necessarily a deliberative process. However, that too is not straightforward. Political parties are the repositories of hard power and attract a mix of individuals motivated by ideology and self-interest. Over time, this balance has shifted towards the latter, leading to irreconcilable internal conflicts of interest, which cannot be resolved through deliberation in a public meeting. The resulting bad faith makes these meetings useless with a lot of substantive discussion and decision making in the background.
Ultimately, internal institutional processes reproduce the balance of power rather than substantially alter it. Political power exists in both the formal and informal spheres, and any institutional process that attempts to go against aggregate power is liable to collapse. Therefore, whether a political party adopts a democratic approach to internal decision-making is a function of the personal inclinations of the leadership and / or the balance of power within the organization. This is not necessarily controversial: unlike the state, democracy is not an end in itself for a political party. The highest attainment of individual well-being and personal will through a democratic state is an end in itself. The goal of a political party is the acquisition of state power. Democratic functioning can be an ideological imperative, an operational choice or a legitimation tactic, but it is not an end in itself for a political party. If this conclusion seems unsatisfactory, the problem is not the underlying principle of discretion but how it works due to the massive degradation of ideology and public interest within political parties.
Epilogue: Instead of examining internal party processes, one way to decentralize power is to get rid of the anti-defection law. The need to solicit votes in the legislature will also create room for negotiation in the party organization. In addition, the electoral process will be independent of the machinery of the party and internal coalitions will evolve in a more measured way than during ad hoc organizational elections. More importantly, this reform will impose a similar burden on all political parties and may create space to change the overall political culture. However, this is an imperfect solution: the organization of the party is larger than the elected representatives alone; second, the candidate often has marginal electoral value compared to the party platform, which can lead to a selection of buffered candidates; and this amendment may further undermine opposition to an authoritarian executive.
This column first appeared in the paper edition on October 23, 2021 under the title “How to democratize the party”. The writer is co-founder and director of the Future of India Foundation, a foundation for comprehensive reflection and communication on youth issues. She was previously the national leader of the student wing of Congress.