In the previous article I stated that the citizens have to assert their sovereignty and transform the nature of governance and the tools available to achieve this task are elections, political parties and citizen activism. The question then is how do we resolve the crisis speedily and peacefully, for such a resolution is critical for good governance, human happiness, economic prosperity and social harmony. In a rational polity, the problems of governance has to be addressed through participation in political process. It is the duty as well as the right of citizens to join political parties, acquire positions of leadership and influence in them, articulate an alternative vision for society and polity, seek elective public office, obtain people's mandate and bring about necessary changes. However this political process is utterly perverted in India and does not give opportunity for enlightened and public spirited citizens to participate in it.
The political parties have become incestuous under the control of oligarchic coteries. Once somebody ascends to a position of leadership in a party, often for reasons other than public support or a broad vision for the future, that person controls the membership access to citizens, expels members at will whenever his position is threatened, does not allow a democratic electoral process within the parties to change leadership, and in general exercises absolute and arbitrary control of the party. In short the political parties have become instruments of self-aggrandizement and personal power. Parties enrich themselves with illegal, unaccounted funding and use these resources to further tighten their control over the members and the electoral process. The choice of candidates nominated by parties for elective public office is entirely at the discretion of the often unelected authoritarian leadership. As a net result of this, political parties have become at best instruments of personal power and have ceased to be institutions of political socialization and agents of change.
This complex scenario makes the Indian governance crisis seemingly intractable. On the one hand in a democracy the only answer to the governance crisis is more and better democracy engineered through political process. On the other hand the political process has become inaccessible to the best men and women in society unless they are willing to compromise to such an extent that they become a part of problem and not the solution. The greatest challenge facing civil society in India today is to somehow unravel this vicious cycle and reverse the decline in governance. At the same time it is unrealistic to expect people to be able to make a significant impact in the electoral arena without a party label.
Throughout the world political parties are the arbiters of politics and the nation's fate in a true sense. They exercise enormous influence on public discourse. They drown all other voices literally by the noise levels they generate and occupy endless newspaper space, radio and television time. They have a direct impact on public policy affecting millions of lives. Political parties are the only effective instruments to acquire power, control the state apparatus and govern. In this backdrop it is virtually impossible for honest and wellmeaning citizens to make a significant political contribution outside parties. The fact that the role of independents in legislatures is at best marginal and is consistently declining only illustrates the importance of parties in democratic governance.
It is unimaginable to think of a liberal democratic society without influential political parties. There is no genuine democracy in which parties do not play a dominant and decisive role in both elections and governance. The well-meaning but somewhat naive attempts of idealists to promote partyless democracy have floundered in all countries, including in India. The heroic efforts and advocacy of partyless democracy by Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan are a telling illustration of such an idealistic vision of a democratic society based on free will of individual citizens without the intermediation of political parties. However, such unalloyed idealism could not withstand the power of organized political parties, and ultimately failed to take off. Many scholars believe that apart from competitive elections, the existence of a whole series of intermediate institutions in society espousing particular political values is critical for the survival of a liberal democracy.
In practice, it is well recognized that electoral political action outside political parties is almost always doomed to failure. This applies equally to countries like the United Kingdom with strong and well-organized political parties and to nations like the United States with very loosely organized political parties with enormous accent on individual liberty.
Therefore the only realistic option available for citizens who wish to involve themselves in political action is joining political parties. A party also represents the aspirations, dreams and beliefs of millions of people and is a product of decades of history, emotion and tradition. It is therefore not easy for individuals to try and form new political parties overnight. However, given the nature and the distortions of our political process already discussed, it is increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for decent citizens to acquire influence in parties and get elected to public office. Honesty and survival in politics is increasingly incompatible. As parties are functioning in a autocratic, unaccountable manner more as private fiefdoms than as instruments of political socialization, the best citizens in society are repelled from political activity.
Distortions of First-past-the-post (FPTP) system
The first-past-the-post(FPTP) system makes it virtually impossible for new political groups to make an impact on our electoral system and force change in political parties or governance process. In our present electoral system in which an individual wins by obtaining the largest number of votes, there is a tendency on the part of parties to move heaven and earth to win a particular constituency. Highly respected and credible individuals stand very little chance despite considerable public support unless they resort to the same ugly practices that have become the hallmark of politics in our country. As a result, politics remains elusive for the finest citizens who could, in a saner polity, provide great leadership.
One possible way out is a system of Proportional Representation (PR) in which a party can have presence in legislature on the basis of its overall popular support, irrespective of whether or not the party can win constituencies on the basis of the largest number of votes obtained. There is a realistic possibility of parties shifting their emphasis to increasing their vote share if PR system is introduced. There is evidence to suggest that the illegitimate efforts to win a few constituencies may actually run counter to the larger objective of enhancing the voting share in a whole State or nation.
At present because of the local factors dominant in constituency elections, the party's overall vote share does not seem to be important. Winning every constituency at any cost by hook or crook is the aim of most mainstream parties in the FPTP system. In PR system once the overall voting share and the image of the political party become critical for the success of the party in the elections, the nature of campaigning and electoral process will undergo a radical positive transformation. Even more significantly, influential groups which have some base but no realistic chance of winning elections now will have an opportunity in the PR system to grow and become serious players in the political landscape, forcing reform.
Next : Is economic liberalization a panacea?