Reforms in political parties, though critical, are unlikely to sustain on their own in absence of reforms in other sectors. India has to explore comprehensive reform in all institutions of state and society in quest of a vibrant society and robust state.
I am posting a video of a panel discussion on "Reform in Political Parties". Keynote Speech was delivered by former Chief Election Commissioner of India Shri S Y Qureshi, with other speakers being eminent academic Professor Balveer Arora, Parliamentarian Dr Kalanidhi Veeraswami and another eminent Indian academic from Cambridge University with roots in Kolkata, Prof Samita Sen. The event was organised by a Kolkata based entity Tillotoma Foundation on my suggestion.
I have been examining the role of political parties in the entire governance process from the perspective of national security for quite some time. Nevertheless, I have been conscious of the need for a wider discussion on the subject. This seminar appeared a good platform but I believe that search for a comprehensive perspective should not be confined to ideas of only eminent speakers and contributors in this seminar. I have noticed that a large number of people, including many personal friends, do go through my blog and send me detailed comments on WhatsApp. But they have avoided posting those on the blog. I shall appreciate a break in this tradition to welcome few comments on the blog.
Ever since I have started observing, studying and researching the subject of national security, I have become increasingly convinced that reform in political parties would be the most critical variable for a robust national security strategy of democratic India. I have written extensively on this subject in my unpublished research work but I had placed a write up on my blog in November 2020. I had also dealt with this subject in my NDC dissertation captioned “..Governance as Bedrock of National Security “ in 2016. In January 2020, during a lecture at JNU, I had emphatically argued that merit driven dynamic and competitive, and neither discordant nor hereditary and oppressive, political parties and corporate sector could emerge the two most critical variable of a robust national security architecture. This would require lot of innovation.
Unfortunately, the strategic community of India has been extremely circumspect in discussing the idea of stronger and effective national security strategy for the country. Sadly, malicious elements hiding within India's own bureaucratic and security establishment, have been crushing and killing powerful ideas, innovations, initiatives as well as patriotic talent that aspires and attempts to bring about major break through in any sphere. Recently, a media channel has discussed issues like suspicious deaths of several scientists from Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai onwards to suspicious death of even former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in Tashkent to recent killings and attempted killings of several scientists. The rot is probably too deep. Even the popular and decisive Prime Minister of India, who has received a resounding mandate from the people twice, has not been able to push through major strategic restructuring of institutions despite showing a powerful resolve in this direction.
Rationale for A Conference on Reform in Political Party System:
Before this conference I was asked from sections of media about the rationale behind a discussion on this subject. I had conveyed the following in writing: 'all great societies and states have advanced by their ability to identify key challenges of their times and explore effective and viable solutions with a high level of sincerity and integrity. Political competition in democracies all over the world has been breeding such levels of conflict that are retarding optimum governance and security output of these societies. Primary cause of such conflicts appears insufficiently or deficiently regulated political competition.
Such problems in Indian democracy appear far more acute. Over the last four decades a democratic India, which is expected to be driven by merit and competition, has unfortunately lagged far too behind a similarly sized opaque and authoritarian China, which has to rely to a fair extent on loyalty and coercion. Such an anomaly is reflective of serious underlying disorder in Indian democracy. Primary cause of such disorder appears inability of political parties to act as aggregators of public interest and aspirations as well as their failure to throw up powerful ideas and initiatives towards collective and comprehensive advancement of India. In many instances, political parties appear monoliths controlled by despotic leaders or dynasts driven by a narrow partisan agenda to capture power. While the process of elections cannot eliminate role and relevance of people entirely but these are increasingly losing focus and priority.'
I had gone on to add that "election process is increasingly appearing war through ballot among rival (or a plethora of ) political parties...... In today’s competitive and increasingly integrated global order, such a scenario presents serious threat to national security of India." I had also maintained that "in an era, where advantages in trade and technology can be used as lethal tools depredation, strength and resilience of a political system depends to a great extent on the agility of its institutions and quality of leadership these are able to throw up. While political actors may have their own challenges and constraints, intellectuals and guardians of society have a moral obligation to agitate on such issues with a degree of integrity and throw up an impartial perspective."
While the conference threw up quite a few ideas towards possible innovations, I had again placed in writing for the conference document that political competition must act as vehicle for promoting excellence in governance by generating powerful choices. Political parties needed to act as credible platforms for this purpose. Sadly, entire political space appears to have generated its own contradictions that are blocking both powerful ideas and initiatives for comprehensive transformation that India needs to pursue a stronger national security strategy. Electoral processes seem to be breeding conflict not only in India but almost universally. India needs to marshal strengths of its original humanist values and introduce traditions like Vaad and Samvaad to strictly regulate political discourse. Similarly, both entitlement and dynastic succession to leadership level roles must end both in political parties as well as larger corporate, social or other organizations. These would enhance both the quality of political debate as well as leadership that our institutions are able to throw up.
Simultaneously, India needs stronger filters to prevent external or internal subversive forces from hijacking its political space and sabotaging rule of law in our democracy . We must acknowledge that Indian society is seriously different from its Chinese counterpart. Hence, Chinese model of governance, backed by oppressive authority of state relying entirely on benevolence of the ruler, is not going to be effective in the Indian context.
We also need to be cognizant of the fact that besides strength of our original values, we are also carrying the baggage of decay and distortion in these which had built a momentum much before external invasions. Subsequent Mamluk, Turkish and Mongol or Mughal and even British colonial traditions, values and practices have also left their impact on governance institutions and processes of India, notwithstanding a modern democratic constitution and multiple reform movements that have taken place simultaneously.
India’s external security threats and internal governance challenges are far too complex compared to European or even other post-colonial democracies. Existing structures and processes of Political parties appear the biggest impediment to emergence of effective ideas and initiatives to address such formidable governance challenges. I shall not dwell in detail but it has been universally conceded in private and public discourse that they are the biggest impediment to rule of law and transparent governance. These are seriously retarding the quality of social cohesion of India and as well as overall regulatory capacity of Indian state. Winnability being the sole factor, political parties are not able to control the quality of candidates that they induct or the sources from which they accept funds. Former CEC was absolutely on the dot when he observed that there are no free lunches and every political donation carries a quid pro quo. These are likely to be in most, but not necessarily in all, cases to go against larger public interest.
While, I have made a comprehensive and elaborate set of recommendation in my unpublished work, here I would be content at mentioning that it is extremely critical to:
i) streamline internal structures and processes of political parties to throw up high quality ideas and bona-fide leaders;
ii) explore (futuristically and not retrospectively and that too after detailed preparations) fixed but not more than one or two tenures at top positions both within political parties as well as at the helm of government either in State or at the Centre to prevent emergence of well entrenched vested interests;
iii) Segregate political parties contesting polls at the Centre and the state and reduce the total number of political parties to not more than 3 or 4 maximum at each level;
iv) put in a strong eligibility criteria with instituting some degree of qualification and experience (not necessarily academic but including knowledge in public life or administrative, managerial or leadership level experience in any profession) mandatory for Union and State level elections whereas recognizing universal freedom to contest elections at party-less local level bodies; and
v) devise a clear and transparent process for entry and exit of every individual in political parties;
While I do not consider these as final words of wisdom, it would be worthwhile stirring some public debate on this subject. Ironically, every effort was made to reach out to all political parties but none responded and nearly all politicians approached on this subject wriggled out except for Dr Kalanidhi. I also maintained in course of my observations, here as well as at every platform, that 'reforms in political parties, though critical, are unlikely to sustain on their own in absence of reforms in other sectors'. I have called for reform in criminal justice system in an earlier write up on the blog. In fact, India has to explore comprehensive restructuring of all institutions of state and society in quest of a vibrant society and robust state, which alone can provide a solid foundation for a strong national security strategy.