There is a currently fashionable view, reiterated by Ram Guha (The Telegraph, Feb 4), that India's diversity will necessarily entail a large number of political parties. In this view, a two- party system is a product of peculiar historical circumstances that may not be applicable to India. Rather than lament the fact that we do not correspond to a classic two- party model, we should recognize the fact that India's diversity will entail a party system that is truly its own.
There is much to recommend in this argument. The institutionalization of democracy requires that we allow for local adaptations and not be too hung up on canonical examples of democracy. But the core assertion that the number of political parties has some relationship to India's diversity bears more critical examination. We have lots of political parties and a good deal of social diversity. But it is too quick to assume that one causes the other.
If we were a little self-critical about our democracy, the proliferation of political parties would strike us more as a paradox than as a necessity. The paradox is that the number of political parties has no bearing on the diversity of views represented. Most observers think that most political parties in India are more like each other on many measures. The ideological differences between most parties are minimal and they are likely to adopt the same mix of policies when in power.
Even on secularism, the one defining difference between political parties, the differences are less stark. The Congress in Gujarat is less different from the BJP in Gujarat, and when it comes to Shivaji and Savarkar, the Congress and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra can band together. Ninety per cent of the legislators in any party could, by their ideological leanings, be in any other party. Except for the left parties, none of the smaller parties have real ideological compunctions about allying with anyone else, if their interests require.
It is true that the political parties represent different social cleavages, but even here, it is easy to exaggerate their differences. No political party will openly oppose populist policies like reservations and their agendas for different social constituents end up looking the same. Therefore, the proposition that the diversity of parties is either entailed by India's diversity or entails an expression of diverse views is simply not tenable.
Indeed, our political parties, with the marginal exception of the left, seem to also be similar in their style of functioning. Most are based on loyalty to leaders rather than loyalty to causes or institutions. Very few have properly institutionalized norms of recruitment and membership. And none have any real intra-party democracy. We ought not to worry about the number of parties, but we should worry about the manner of their functioning.
Democracy performs its most salient functions through parties. The selection of candidates, the mobilization of the electorate, the formulation of agendas, the passing of legislation ' are all conducted through parties. Parties are, in short, the mechanisms through which power is exercised in a democracy. While few are na've enough to believe that the oligarchic tendencies of political parties can be entirely overcome, it is abundantly clear that the ways in which parties structure opportunities have decisive outcomes for democracy.
Why does the lack of intra-party democracy produce adverse outcomes for Indian democracy' The poor institutionalization of intra-party democratic procedures means that the internal functioning of parties is not transparent. The criteria for the basic decisions any party has to take, ranging from candidate selection to party platform, remain either unclear or are left to the discretion of one or a handful of leaders. The more the discretionary power vested with leaders, the more a political party will depend solely on its leaders for renewal.
This is so for many reasons. First, one of the most important functions of democracy in any setting is epistemic: to allow the free and uninhibited flow of relevant information. The less internally democratic a party, the less likely it is that the relevant information will flow up party conduits. The Congress leadership's spectacular failure to be attentive to local conditions during the Seventies and Eighties is a recent instance of this phenomenon. Second, if the criteria for advancement within the party are unclear and whimsical, newly-mobilized social groups or leaders are less likely to work within existing party structures and will be more tempted to set up their own. If there are no formal mechanisms to challenge entrenched party hierarchies and regulate conflict within parties, they are more likely to fragment. Suppose you are a newly-mobilized social group and want to pursue the path to power. You can do it either by forming a new party, or through existing parties, by moving up the ladder. In most countries, groups opt to do the latter for a number of reasons. Becoming a dominant player requires an ability to reach out to broader social constituencies and joining existing parties enables this. But new groups will remain in parties only if there are clear and fair rules that allow their advancement. Intra-party elections are one such mechanism. They allow a group or a candidate to say, 'If we can convince this group of voters within the party of our views, we get to determine its policies.' But if these rules are not clear, and dependent upon the whim of the top leadership, new and ambitious entrants that carry a social base are more wary of entering parties.
So there are no ideological obstacles to a Mulayam or a Mayavati being in Congress. But their being there puts them at the mercy of someone else's leadership. There are no institutional guarantees of fairness. Their prospects become more uncertain because there are no clear rules. Therefore new constituencies prefer working through new parties rather than joining old ones. Once we got a significant number of parties, it changed the political equilibrium. Now parties have an added incentive to cling on to their little enclaves. With the prospects of coalition governments high, the bargaining power of smaller parties, which might otherwise have been irrelevant, increases. In short, the proliferation of parties has more to do with institutional pathology within parties than with ideological diversity within the country.
In most democracies, parties perform crucial educative functions. Political leaders used to accepting the discipline and sanctity of democratic procedures within their own parties are also less likely to circumvent democracy when in government. Moreover, protracted intra-party primaries have a profound impact on party members. If the party platform is put up for serious contestation within the party, it is more likely that party members will know why their party takes the positions it does. It is also more likely that the battle within parties will become something more of a battle of ideas rather than a race for patronage.
Poorly institutionalized intra-party democracy produces more factions. In circumstances where the legitimacy of contending groups within a party is not dependent upon a clearly verifiable and open mandate from within the party, the survival of political leaders depends more on political intrigue than on persuading their followers. And those who lose out in this process can nurse the illusion that they were victims of intrigue rather than of their own failures. Much factionalism is simply a product of ambition. But ambition is given freer rein in circumstances where there are no settled procedures to determine whose authority counts.
There is no argument against the proposition that we should cherish our diversity. And we should be open to different institutional forms to express it. But the idea that our current party system is about representing diversity is a piece of wishful thinking.