OPN India
As regional forces dominate India’s political landscape, they often depend on families or individuals to hold them together Image Credit: Gulf News

As a keen observer of Indian politics, it was fascinating to watch the Tory party leadership contest play out this summer between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. 

It may not be a perfect process, and the mud slinging was unpleasant, but it was certainly far more transparent than what we see back home as the contenders battled it out through debates and campaigns which ultimately saw Truss taking over from Boris Johnson.

OPN Mallikarjun Kharge
Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge Image Credit: ANI

Elections to the Congress president’s post in India have dominated headlines this past week and for good reason. The grand old party is seeing a contest for the first time in decades as Mallikarjun Kharge, the Gandhi loyalist and their choice for the top job, faces off against party MP Shashi Tharoor.

With the family officially out of the race, this election is critical to the Congress party’s future trajectory as it faces internal revolts and decimation electorally at the hands of India’s ruling BJP.

But while the criticism about lack of inner party democracy within the Congress is valid, it is also amusing, given the complete lack of transparency across political parties in India. At least the Congress is holding an election to the top post this time. What about the rest?

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party National President JP Nadda being felicitated by Union Ministers Amit Shah and Rajnath Singh during the BJP Parliamentary Party Meeting at Ambedkar International Center, in New Delhi on Tuesday.
JP Nadda, who took charge of the BJP from Amit Shah in 2020, is likely to get an extension Image Credit: ANI

Sample this. NDTV reported last week that JP Nadda, who took charge as BJP president from Amit Shah in 2020, is likely to get an extension, with less than two years to go for the next general election and a string of state elections before that. Nadda’s three-year term is scheduled to end on January 20, 2023.

If you look at the recent history of the BJP, right from Venkaiah Naidu in 2002 to LK Advani, Rajnath Singh, Nitin Gadkari, Amit Shah, and JP Nadda — all the BJP presidents have been elected by “consensus”. In other words, there was no election.

Contests are discouraged

It’s the same story for the Congress which has seen Sonia and Rahul Gandhi “elected” by “consensus” in the past. Several regional parties are similar in their desire to concentrate power in the hands of a few leaders — the Samajwadi Party “elected” Mulayam Singh Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav as party chiefs by “consensus” in the past; the BSP did it with Mayawati and Kanshi Ram before that, the DMK with M Karunanidhi and MK Stalin and the story goes on.

Recently, the Election Commission of India said a flat out NO to electing a leader as party president for life, which is what the ruling party of Andra Pradesh, the YSRCP had done.

It reportedly “elected” Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy as its president for life in July. The election commission called such a step as inherently anti-democratic.

The fact is, inner party democracy does not exist within India’s political parties. As regional forces dominate India’s political landscape, they often depend on families or individuals to hold them together.

Contests are often discouraged so that power remains concentrated in the same hands. Even the Congress president elections have a candidate “blessed” by the Gandhi family for this reason.

The Election Commission sends periodic reminders to all parties to hold elections for party posts but as the “consensus” pattern shows, everyone ticks the boxes for the EC without actually having a contest. But the commission does not have any statutory power to enforce internal democracy in parties or to mandate elections.

Ultimately, only moral pressure from voters may force political parties to hold elections.