Intra-Party Democracy And Nuclear Disarmament

There are structural reasons why we do not have intra-party democracy in India, but I think that cultural reasons are important too.  Internal democracy is like nuclear disarmament – you can’t do it unilaterally.

In India, the cultural norm is that if you openly speak out against the leader of the party, you are not just disagreeing, but signalling a revolt. Reporters will breathlessly ask the critic if he is preparing to quit the party. News channels will quote sources close to the “two camps” which will talk of how the morale of the party  rank and file has been affected by the events. If you try to claim that there really aren’t any plans to split the party and the disagreements were just that – disagreements, the papers will speculate that the two camps are on the way to a patch up.

I am not blaming the papers. Their reporting will be factual, because morale is, after all, a social reality. Because the norm is what it is, party cadre will view any criticism as revolt in the offing, and their morale will really go down.  If you are the head of the party, you face a difficult choice. You may prefer open debate and discussion in your party. You may think, rightly, that open disagreements are in your interest, because it allows party workers let off steam and gives you notice of problems in your party. But if you allow any disagreement at all, your opponents will see you as a weak leader and there is a higher chance that they will revolt.  So you must clamp down hard on any dissent. This means that the cultural norm reinforces itself. If everyone in your party knows that any disagreement will be treated as a revolt, they will not openly disagree unless they are planning to revolt. Which of course means that you are in fact justified in treating all disagreement as revolt and clamping down hard.

That is one problem, which relates to allowing open dissent. Allowing elections involves a similar Hobbesian choice.  You may not mind losing the first election if you were confident that the next one would be held. But you can’t be sure. You fear that if you lose an election, you are faced with not just loss of office, but a purge that threatens your political career and the careers of all your supporters. When you are faced with such a grim choice, why would you allow intra-party democracy and internal elections?

28 thoughts on “Intra-Party Democracy And Nuclear Disarmament

  1. The cultural reasons, one would think, stem from systemic ones. Though the system was partly a result of cultural reasons.
    It’s easier to and more common to change one’s political colors in a system such as India’s. That, it appears, is the biggest reason for a strong top down command structure. And, the evolution of the oldest party, the INC, serves as a good guide for the increasing weight of the system with time.

  2. Ravi,

    I think the present malaise is a result of monopoly of Gandhi-Nehru family on Congress since independence.

  3. Why does this not happen in many other countries? Are you saying that the cultural norm is required to kick-start the phenomenon and then it becomes self-reinforcing?

  4. Froginthewell, democracy is difficult to conceive and difficult to establish. Once established, it is self-sustaining. When I say that something is a cultural norm, I don’t say that it can never be changed, only that it is difficult to change. In fact, I fully expect things to change in India in the next two decades.

  5. I agree with Nilu and I think ours is a better system to serve the needs of the voting public rather than an ‘intra party’ democracy in the service of lobbyists for corporations and the rich. Hopefully things will get worse before its gets better.

  6. That is a fascinating point of view HiAgain. It is now clear to me that the reason why Sonia Gandhi does not let her partymen speak their mind or elect their leaders is that she is fighting a difficult battle to keep lobbyists for corporations and the rich at bay.

  7. But even Sonia Gandhi gets voted out notwithstanding her enormous power over her party. It might be good for the Congress party to have a better churn in its leadership but the voters continue to have a choice no matter how that party is run. The system is not dependent on the internal mechanisms of these parties. I think Nilu made a post regarding this in his blog. The system works in a different and effective way. Politicians simply leave the party and organize new ones offering more choices to the people.

    The ever splintering nature of parties means that it is not possible for a small coterie or elite to keep control of the system. They might capture a party or two but not the system. So to win elections, the politicians end up having to pander to the masses. Thus democracy remains in full bloom 🙂

  8. I guess HiAgain inadvertently did make a valid point — in that, inner party democracy does not necessarily achieve the end ‘democratic’ result for a society[1]. That, though fairly obvious from first principles, is often ignored.
    [1] — Assuming current cultural[2] conditions, that is.
    [2] — I am not sure if ‘culture’ is the correct term. If it does denote circumstances paved by the causal function called history, it is.

  9. Yes, the primary system is more susceptible to extremism and capture by special interests, but it is absurd to argue that the special interest groups in question are corporate interests. In the US, the democratic primaries are likely to be captured by unions while the republican primaries are captured by the NRA and evangelicals. These, by no stretch of my imagination (I don’t know about HiAgain’s imagination) can be called “corporate interests”. Corporate capture happens at the legislatures, and there, the Indian system is no better than the American system.

    Second, you are mixing intra-party democracy with the big-tent party system of the US. True, the two are related. If you have intra-party democracy, you would have fewer parties. But the two-party system has more to do with the fact that the US has a presidential form and with American history than with intra-party democracy. If our parties became democratic, we would have fewer parties, but there is no reason to assume that they will get whittled down to two.

    If you have few parties, with internal democracy and an intermediate level of party discipline (i.e. less than India, but more than the US – more like the British system) our politicians will in fact be less susceptible to capture by special interests than if they were members of splinter parties who do not have to obey a whip and are free to accept bribes from Reliance.

  10. Ravi, your reasoning ignores the fact that India is much larger and more diverse compared to Britain. In effect, you seem to blame causality and not the cause.

  11. Wait what? India is larger and more diverse than Britain, so it will have more parties than Britain even if we go in for a presidential system and intra-party democracy. I thought this part would be obvious and agreed upon.

  12. No, that was stated given the assumption that we have a Parliamentary system. Your comparison with Britain assumed that, implicitly.

  13. OK, let’s get this thing organized:
    1) Presidential system means fewer parties, while parliamentary system means more parties.
    2) More diversity means more parties. Greater population means more parties.
    3) A culture of intra-party democracy means fewer parties.
    4) History and initial conditions have some impact.

    My comparison with Britain had nothing to do with its Parliamentary system. I was assuming a case where intra-party democracy increased in India, but not to the extent that it exists in the US. Britain is intermediate in this regard, with whips and party discipline being forced on MPs.

    Now, you can rightly argue that the British party discipline itself is a consequence of the parliamentary system. True. But the American culture of individualism and federalism also mattered – it would be much tougher for a representative from Wyoming accept a whip from DC party bosses. Then there is the force of initial conditions. It is simply unrealistic to expect that India, starting from where we are, will end up having a two party system just because we adopt the presidential system.

  14. Yes, all that was assumed.

    My point was, HiAgain’s had — maybe without intending to — implied that inner party democracy does not necessarily translate to an overall ‘democratic’ system. The reason I thought restating that obvious fact was relevant was because, somehow, several commentators had assumed that the two were interchangeable.

    Now, my objection to your subsequent reasoning was — you seem to indicate that Britain occupies a position somewhere in between America and India without acknowledging the reasons that make India’s system what it is. Namely, a huge and diverse nation as opposed to a largely homogeneous (in terms of ethnicity at least, and ignoring the Welsh and Scots for obvious reasons) and small country that Britain was in the 19th Century.

    Further, more than individualism in itself, one would think, diversity is weighs more in terms of influence on the system. Hence the hint of a possibility you have denied citing historical context.

  15. Money is behind the power of the NRA and Christian Evangelism. The NRA is basically the gun lobby, which represents a very lucrative business. Christian Evangelism has been funded by conservative billionaires and a network of conservative organizations that have worked hard to ensure that the poor in America support all kinds of market policies sometimes to the disadvantage of the poor themselves.

    Secondly, the power of a lobby needn’t be based on the size of the industry. The car industry has much more lobbying power than the tech industry. The constantly underperforming airline industry keeps getting bailouts every 6 years. They might as well nationalize the airlines but ideological hang-ups won’t let them do it.

    Anyway I don’t understand why English-educated classes in India constantly want to emulate western countries. How about realizing the fact that we are a minority and that our country is taking a path of its own?

    Even I have no disagreement with the points raised above. The only thing is that, just because primaries are going on in the US, we Indians are suddenly worried about the state of intra-party democracy in India. Don’t we have more pressing problems than taking cues from the US? It’s nothing but another fad to be forgotten come November.

  16. And how do you reconcile this current nonsense with your earlier claim that the US is better governed and provides better social services to its citizens, which accounts for you staying in the US? Are you saying that a government governed by corporate lobbyists governs well?

  17. When did I say that I am staying here because it is better governed? Neither am I here to enjoy better social services. In that case, I will be better off in Canada or Europe. There is a lot of capital flowing through this country and its just easier scoop up some of it. That’s all there is. I have no illusions. 🙂

  18. So, that answers the question I posed here

    Not content to exploit your own countrymen in your country, you have moved to the US to gain some of the benefits of the American exploitation of your countrymen?

  19. I haven’t got any social security benefits yet and the government doesn’t pay me anything. I earn money just like you do. If India was having organic growth rather than via servicing the needs of foreigners, I wouldn’t be here. But as it is, I am not going to let you get ahead of me with you earning dollars and buying up everything around me in India. It is a race to the bottom and I am racing with the best of them. To look at it from a different perspective, we are involved in that great capital-flight back to India. Hopefully, India will regain its 25% share of the world economy.

    Since you went on non-sequitur, that blog was more about how you distrust your own countrymen and trust a foreign country more when in fact the actions of the latter do not in any way suggest that it can be trusted. Instead of blanket criticism of the Left, it would be prudent to examine each situation individually. Even the Indian government is slowly realizing its folly and taking a step back. Why have the authorities here banned any discussion of the agreement even by Senators and Congressmen? Very democratic indeed. What do they have to hide? I am not ideological, just practical. I hold no spite towards the Left, Right or any grouping.

  20. HiAgain,

    Thanks for your insight. Your world view, which is a result of your education is the biggest argument against KVs.

  21. How graceful of you to participate in a “race to the bottom” that is making you richer every day, while at the same time arguing against letting your countrymen participate in the same race!

    As for “examining each situation individually”, it is rich coming from you. The topic of that blog was the nuclear deal. Instead of arguing against that individual situation, you brought up another deal which, according to you, showed how perfidious the Americans were. I suppose you are willing to examine the individual deal only when the deal benefits you personally.

    And for trusting your countrymen, I mistrust everyone equally. That is why I am a capitalist, but may I know why you failed to trust your own government, a government that is elected according to what you claim is a clearly superior system?

  22. Are you guys interrogating me?

    On that issue I trust the Left most. I brought up past dealings by the Americans as a sign of what might be coming. I think they are relevant. I do trust my government to look out for my interest or the collective interest of my people more than a foreign one. The fact that this crap deal isn’t going through very easily, had to be reworked and still isn’t going through shows that our system works. Ours is not a dictatorship but a collective system that is not easy to subvert. No wonder Western countries prefer to deal with dictatorships.

  23. I am only one person, and yes, I am cross-examining you. The fact remains that you trust yourself to look at the “individual situation” and strike individual deals with foreign entities when it suits you. But you get into broad categorisations of “left”, “government”, “foreign entities” and “trust” when it doesn’t.

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