Political parties in India enjoy an importance in the body politic that is disproportionate to what they should enjoy in a parliamentary democracy. They are often given a voice over that of the parliamentary party and exercise an influence over policy-making. Thus political parties have come to acquire an institutional presence in Indian political life. A new feature has now been added to the way political parties operate. This is the think-tank which meets periodically to review the party’s position and ideology. The Bharatiya Janata Party held one recently under the rubric of chintan baithak. The Congress is organizing its own in Shimla next month. To these conclaves are invited selected leading figures of the party and other invitees who are in a position to make a valuable contribution to the discussion. The outcome of the discussion is then included in the party gospel. It will not be an exaggeration to suggest that these conclaves are an intrusion into a preserve which in the fitness of things belongs to the parliamentary party, in other words to those members who have been elected as representatives of the people. In the case of the BJP, the transgression is compounded by the fact it is in government over which no external body should exert an influence.
It would be unfair, however, to equate the role of the BJP think-tank to that of the Congress one. The BJP has a working party organization. The word working is used advisedly. The various committees within the party, from the bottom to the party’s working committee and the national executive, meet regularly to discuss issues of moment and the party’s position on those issues. Thus the chintan baithak does not bypass the party organization but is an extension of it since the decisions taken in the baithak have to be approved by the party’s decision-making fora. The chintan baithak is only a recommending body albeit a very crucial one in the formulation of the BJP’s ideology and its strategy and tactics. The case of the Congress is significantly different. The organization of the Congress is non-existent. None of its various bodies function in terms of effective decision-making. Decisions in the Congress flow from the top. Ms Sonia Gandhi’s word and views are everything in the Congress. Even in the working committee everybody looks at her to lead the discussion or tries to read her views. The conclave in Shimla will be another example of how the party organization is made irrelevant in the Congress.
It is an irony that there is so little respect for inner-party institutions in the Congress ethos. The Congress was the champion of institution-building and the pioneer in laying the foundations of democracy in India. But within the party, there is no democracy. Indeed, there is no attempt even to preserve a pretence of inner-party democracy. There are differences in the way the Congress and the BJP functions. But in both there are pronounced propensities to move decision-making out of the party organization. This is not a healthy tendency for democracy in India. What is even more alarming is that only a few are aware of the dangers involved.