Thursday, July 17, 2008

Day 32: Thinking About Party Discipline

The Indian media is having a field day. The government is up for a trust vote next Tuesday, and the numbers are still not adding up. By the last count, they are falling short by about 15 votes, with about 19 fence sitters including 6 independents. In the past, minority governments were saved by India's infamous tenth schedule, or anti-defection law, which disqualifies MPs and make them lose their seat if they have voted against party lines. This time, with a general election round the corner anyway, no one is much bothered about this.

Except one party. CPIM. Yesterday, I was asked who I think would win. My almost instant answer was that whoever wins, I know CPIM would lose. They have got themselves in an unenviable position. If the government wins, they will be completely dumped and stand out as a party which does not know how to behave responsibly. If the government loses, they would force an early general election on the country, costing several million dollars, and almost invariably, given their standing at the current time, they will be returned with a much reduced number of seats.

This is a strategic disaster, which will come back to haunt the party for many years to come. And, they have committed themselves to this line simply because open debate and dissent are not in the culture of this party. The almost all-powerful General Secretary, Mr. Prakash Karat, who is a politico-bureaucrat and does not have to face a general electorate, thought that because of his party's support to the government [note: from outside], he has some sort of executive power vested in him and he needs to be made a party to any administrative decision that the government is going to take. For last four years, he had held the policy-makers at ransom with his 'or else' threat. However, this time, his threats pushed the government a bit too far - they know that window of getting the nuclear deal through is fast closing as the Bush Administration is all set to go home - and in fact given them an opportunity - to show that they can act independently of the left's 'blackmail' and to deflect some blame for the high food and fuel prices. If they were open to debate and discussion against executive decision [ironically, the same allegation that the party makes against the government with regard to the nuclear deal], CPIM as a party would not have taken such a disastrous course because the people politicians in the party would have been able to remind Mr. Karat about their strategic weakness at this time.

The current situation should obviously prompt a rethinking of how much of party discipline is actually healthy. CPIM isn't typical - as one could see, they are obviously in denial and facing a decline, losing the middle ground to a somewhat resurgent, centrist Congress party, and the revolutionary initiative to Maoists and urban naxalites in West Bengal and elsewhere. But this question should be broadly applied to any political party, left or right, and measures like the tenth schedule of the Indian constitution should be viewed in this context.

It is impractical to say that no party discipline is necessary. That will be anarchic. While the power of the individual is on the rise, and new media allows transparent access to individual opinions, the individual still needs the resources and organization of a political party to effectively participate in the political process. And, these resources effectively makes the individual a representative, and as long as he continues to enjoy the privileged access to such resources, (s)he is obliged to act as a representative, and be within certain norms of behavior and voting as set by the party.

However, this needs to be seen in the context of current expectations of people from its politicians. More than ever, the voting public has the means, and in some cases, the willingness to participate in the political process. And, the politicians, who are in debt to their party for its resources and organization, are indeed in greater debt to people for their votes and continuing support. It also needs to be noted that the assertion that 'people vote for parties' are increasingly dated, as mass media has effectively created celebrity politicians and a popular political culture, especially in the politically involved countries such as India. So, indeed, people vote for people. At times like this, therefore, they expect their representatives to voice their opinion and not act like puppets in the hand of a few non-elected theoreticians.

Parties that want to survive in the future needs to prepare for this new reality. Even if the election process in a country do not allow a more representative democracy [like India, where we can't recall our MLAs and MPs], the party needs to build in processes for open debate and participation for its voters and supporters. Interestingly, the US model works well because its huge, and transparent, fund raising process. Parties are critically dependent on its supporters for funds, and need to tell them what they are doing, or planning to do regularly. Even the British leaders are accountable and regularly monitored, and while Gordon Brown may survive this year's Labour conference, he has to show his party that they can win the upcoming by-elections first. However, one can be assured that even if CPIM loses 50% of its current seats in the next General elections, talking about Mr. Karat's political wisdom will be still regarded blasphemy in CPIM, and therefore, will not be tolerated.

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