Mains Articles

Missing intra-party democracy in India [Mains Article]

The quality of a democracy ultimately depends on internal democracy (or the lack of it) in political parties. One should assess the importance of intra-party democracy in the success of a democracy.
By IT's Mains Articles Team
January 09, 2018


  • What is intra-party democracy?
  • Significance of intra-party democracy:
  • Provisions related to intra-party democracy in India:
  • Examples of lack of intra-party democracy:
  • Reasons for the lack of intra-party democracy:
  • Suggested Measures:
  • Conclusion & Way ahead:

Missing intra-party democracy in India

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GS (M) Paper-2: “Parliament and State Legislatures – structure, functioning, conduct of business, powers & privileges and issues arising out of these.”


What is intra-party democracy?

  • Internal democracy in political parties, also known as intra-party democracy, refers to the level and methods of including party members in the decision making and deliberation within the party structure.

intra-party democracy iastoppers

Significance of intra-party democracy:

  • The quality of a democracy ultimately depends on internal democracy (or the lack of it) in political parties. One should assess the importance of intra-party democracy in the success of a democracy.
  • In its 170th report in 1999, the Law Commission of India underscored the importance of intra-party democracy by arguing that a political party cannot be a “dictatorship internally and democratic in its functioning outside”.
  • Intra-party democracy is essential to sustain broader political democracy in a country.

Provisions related to intra-party democracy in India:

  • Unlike some countries like Germany and Portugal, India has no legal provision for enforcing internal democracy in a political party.
  • Although there are some related provisions in the Election Commission guidelines, those are neither adequate nor enforceable.

Examples of lack of intra-party democracy:

  • In India, political parties rarely have a true intra-party democracy.
  • Regional parties that are built around a towering leader do not even have any pretence of democratic decision making: their leader’s whim or fancy is the party’s policy. If that leader passes away, an unseemly scramble for power ensues as the party implodes, particularly if there are no charismatic successors from the leader’s immediate family.
  • Even in the case of ‘ideological’ parties, things are no different. Nitish Kumar did not hold any inner-party discussion while deciding to change his party’s alliance partner in Bihar.
  • The Communists call their idea of inner party functioning ‘democratic centralism,’ but the stress is clearly on centralism.
  • The Congress does hold inner party elections periodically, but it means only symbolic as Sonia Gandhi held the reign of the party since 1997 which recently was transferred to his son Rahul Gandhi.

sonia-rahul_Rahul Gandhi iastoppers

Reasons for the lack of intra-party democracy:

1. Political parties are leader-centric:

  • The biggest weakness of parties is that they are leader-centric and most leaders are unwilling to institutionalise procedures for the selection of candidates and increase the participation of members in party functioning to prevent elite capture from getting entrenched.
  • As a rule, strong leaders rarely support institutionalisation because it constrains their discretion and personal power. This has proved detrimental to the political system as it impedes the growth of broad-based non-sectarian parties which can effectively articulate and aggregate a variety of interests.
  • This is a major challenge facing the party system because party activity driven by partisan mobilisation lies at the root of much of the schism and disruption of Indian politics today.


2. Winning elections is more important than intra-party democracy:

  • Another aspect is the reduction of party organisations into election-winning machines, which depend for their success on the charisma of the leader and their capacity to win elections. Winning elections has become the only role a party envisages for itself.
  • The privileging of elections at the expense of intra-party democracy implies that parties are inattentive to the need for constant organisational change and renewal. Leaders are valued for their capacity to attract crowds and raise funds as elections become more and more expensive.

3. Lack of funding at state-level hinders intra-party democracy:

  • If party funds are raised and controlled centrally, this weakens the State units and rank and file vis-à-vis the central leadership on a range of issues including leadership selection and nominations for elections. It also discourages democratisation as this would limit their power to accumulate wealth or amass a fortune or promote personal power at the expense of public interest.

4. MPLADS and MLALADS damages intra-party democracy: 

  • Local area development schemes like The Members of Parliament Local Area Development Division (MPLADS) and Members of Legislative Assembly Local Area Development Fund (MLALADS) vest an annual sum with the members of Parliament and legislative assemblies for development work in their constituencies skew the balance in favour of state and central legislators at the expense of city- and village-level administrators.
  • These schemes unjustly favour the incumbent representative and also intensify the problem of patronage politics. Patronage politics lies at the heart of dynastic succession in Indian politics—a result of control of political parties by an oligarchic elite. Dynastic succession also works as insurance against defections and fragmentation of political parties.

MLALADS damages intra-party democracy iastoppers

5. Anti-defection law as a hindrance to intra-party democracy:

  • One of the instruments that has been used for ensuring stable and lasting governments is the anti-defection law that was passed in 1985. By making it mandatory for the legislator to vote along her party line, this law has done immense damage to both intra-party democracy and the accountability of a legislator towards her constituency.
  • It also skews the balance of power between the executive and the legislature. The legislator is no longer empowered to act as an effective check on the government of the day.

Suggested Measures:

In its 255th report in 2015, the Law Commission had suggested some legislative redressal.

  • It is argued for doing away with the anti-defection law, especially for those votes where the survival of the government is not at stake.
  • It has also made a compelling case for scrapping the MPLADS and MLALADS.
  • There is need for a partial state subsidy to fund elections and political parties. There is a need to abolish the MPLADS to finance the state funding of political parties.

Conclusion & Way ahead:

  • Opacity in political financing, fear of fragmentation and unstable governments, dynastic succession, and lack of intra-party democracy are all mutually reinforcing variables. Even if a leader disillusioned with the centralized control in her party goes on to establish a new party, the results are not very different.
  • It high time that election commission takes stock of registered political parties to submit their internal election process and define the rules. But the task appears to be momentous.
  • There are many options on the table. But all of these will require a willingness by the incumbent political authorities to give up some of their powers. Will they step up to the challenge?
[Ref: The Hindu, Live Mint, Economic Times]


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