The ‘plumbing’ of inner party democracy


Praveen Chakravarty
September 17, 2022

‘Inner party democracy’ is a favourite buzzword for Indian political commentators. Since 2019, there have been 27 articles in mainstream English media publications delivering sermons to the Congress about ‘internal democracy’. If inner party democracy was such a magic pill, why is it that no political party in India has embarked on it for so long?

Contrary to shallow theories, it is not because the current leadership fear losing control. In fact, a Rahul Gandhi, M.K.Stalin, Mamata Banerjee, Sharad Pawar or an Akhilesh Yadav would sweep any internal elections held in their respective parties. A contest is possible only when established party leaders sacrifice their quests, such as what Mr. Gandhi has done for the Congress. There is also some fear among parties that an internal leadership contest may result in a splintered organisation, vulnerable to capture by external adversaries. But political parties, especially the Opposition, are anyway not secure from such external raids by the ruling party today.

Translating grandiose ideas such as inner party democracy into action requires institutional capabilities, just as the Election Commission (EC) has to keep India a democratic republic. The ‘plumbing’ needed to implement inner party democracy is very complex, messy and lacking in India’s political parties. No other political party has the institutional capacity of the EC to implement internal democracy.

The election process

Who will be the voters in an internal election to choose the president? Should all the members of the party or only office bearers or a certain category of leaders vote? If all the members are to be voters, how can their membership be verified? Or if only office bearers or select leaders are to vote, what is the basis for their selection? How can one be sure that yesterday’s member or leader is still in the party at the time of election, given the alacrity with which politicians are bought and sold today? Who will be eligible to contest? How can external interference or manipulation of the electoral college be prevented? The 140-year history of the Congress has helped codify some of these answers in the party’s constitution, albeit not sufficiently or aptly for modern times.

The Central Election Authority (CEA) of the Congress, headed by Madhusudhan Mistry, recruited a massive team of 943 returning officers from within the party. These officers were tasked with overseeing the process of choosing delegates from each of the 9,000+ block units of the Congress across the country, either through election or consensus, based on membership enrolment. Beginning with a six-month membership drive and formation of block, assembly and district units, over 9,800 delegates were chosen through a constitutionally defined process, provided a QR-coded ID card and formed the electoral college to elect the next president. Any of them could choose to contest for the post of the president by getting the support of 10 other delegates. Voting is through a secret paper ballot under a rank choice voting system, unlike the first-past-the-post system of Indian elections. The returning officers are responsible for conducting smooth elections in each State headquarters and bringing the ballot boxes to Delhi for counting. And through this process, the CEA and its returning officers must not only be impartial and fair, but also perceived to be fair. This mammoth exercise is only possible due to the institutional structure of the CEA, the constitutionally prescribed election rules and an experienced team of nearly a thousand people working on it for over a year.

Establishing such credible institutions and processes to be led by people of high integrity and who command the respect of most is not easy. But without this, there can be no ‘inner party democracy’ in a political party, which explains why most parties in India do not undertake such an arduous task.

Errors of omission

Further, it is only reasonable to expect such a massive undertaking to be imperfect with errors of omission but not of commission. But people fall prey to Occam’s razor principle and attribute malice to such errors when they can be explained as inevitable imperfections in such a large project. Aspersions cast flippantly by armchair critics inside and outside the party on the institution, process or individuals dissuade leaders and parties even more from such exercises in internal democracy.

Any contestation for power is a messy, Chanakyan affair that inevitably ends with happy and grumpy people. The thankless, complex and risky endeavour of inner party elections serves as a disincentive for most parties to attempt such an exercise, especially when its supposed benefits do not seem to outweigh the enormous tangible and intangible costs in the short term.

The Congress’s election process may not be flawless, but when over 9,800 members of the electoral college cast their vote today to choose the next president, it will be a testament to the party’s rich legacy and ability to build robust institutions — traits that helped our nation attain independence and evolve into a modern republic.

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