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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 41, October 2, 2010

Partyless Democracy: Remembering Mahatma Gandhi and JP

Wednesday 6 October 2010, by Shree Shankar Sharan


A seminar on partyless democracy at Allahabad has put me wise to the growing disenchantment with party governments, party elections and party regimentation of MPs and MLAs that deals a blow at genuine people-led and controlled democracy.

The alienation and disenchantment with the parliamentary or presidential forms of governments, both party based, is not confined to young democracies like ours. Its most vociferous expression has appeared in the oldest democracies of the UK and USA. What has triggered it off is the deceit and lying that party leaders could get away with to start the Iraq war and their parties made to accept the fait accompli. Individual acts of corruption of fund raisers for parties and lowering of the guard on the fund donors like the Lehman brothers or Anderson or the Union Carbide are all cases in point. In fact the size of the funds needed to do politics has weakened political control over big business whose political clout has kept growing and often tilts the balance on such sensitive matters as peace and war. Texas Oil’s unique clout in the US’ Middle East policy or that of Burmah Shell’s in Iran some decades ago are too well known to be bear repetition.

With lesser men at the helm of affairs as Presidents and Prime Ministers, democratic governments have increasingly come under a cloud forcing millions of people on the streets in London or Washington or Denmark or Doha to press their views directly to bring governments in a tighter leash than is possible by a five-year term and periodic elections. No wonder the New York Times wrote that along with a single superpower had been born a new superpower of public opinion.

In India and much of South Asia there is grave concern with the delivery system. Hundreds of crores have gone down the drain by being pilfered by middlemen, colluding people’s representatives and corrupt bureaucrats. Records are fudged and non-existent schemes reported to be complete in the MNREGA and wages grossly underpaid. The number of days of employment offered is grossly below the promised 100 days. The public distribution system is in a mess and more than 50 per cent is siphoned off. In the border States it is smuggled out. We have complacent or overzealous Ministers, little cohesion between coalition partners, a disappearance of discipline and accountability most glaringly evident in the bungling of such a costly piece of showmanship as the Commonwealth Games.

The Central Government is weak and overly concerned with policy-making towards growth and little with equity, distribution and farm production and serious wage and income disparities. It took them several years to devise policies to tackle rural unemployment and farmers’ suicides.

All this cumulatively could jolt the people’s faith in the relevance or benefits of democracy and turn them towards parties that deny democracy or preach and bring to power casteist and communal politics and leadership which disrupt social cohesion and peace and delay addressing more serious life-sustaining issues.

The financial meltdown in the West swelling unemployment and slow recovery has also shaken the people out of their complacency that democracy coupled with market economy is the end of history. There is something rotten in the state of Denmark.

I made two basic points at the seminar. The questioning of party democracy could have one of two reasons. Firstly, it could be born out of anarchism or near anarchism out of a conviction that all power is evil, corrupt and contemptible and we should learn to live without it. The second was to support direct democracy in place of indirect democracy as in Athens or Vaishali in north Bihar to avoid the ills of representative democracy, many of the representatives being susceptible to corruption, crime and caste loyalties and thereby a factor for the country’s political and moral decline and loss of trust of the voters. The nature of the modern state, on the other hand, had its compulsion of being strong, technically competent and visionary which did not admit of being run by direct democracy always.

The idea of partyless democracy also needs to be checked with the ideas of two of our greatest thinkers in the modern times, Karl Marx and Mahatma Gandhi, both of whom have either predicted the withering away of the state as a stage of man’s political and economic evolution or total dispersal of power as a means of saving the people from violence (ahimsa), abuse and exploitation.

Mahatma Gandhi advocated deconcentration of power by dispersal of power to grassroot institutions, the gram panchayats and a Central and State government elected indirectly by the panchayat, panchayat samiti, zilla parishad members bottom upwards so that the MLAs and MPs remain organically connected to the bottom or lowest rung of the political edifice.

Neither Karl Marx nor Gandhi either explicitly or implicitly supported party democracy as practised in the UK or USA but proposed more appropriate and effective political devices to bring power to the people. While Marx conceived an intermediate stage of proletarian dictatorship, Gandhi remained a votary of people’s power from the start without any room for concentration of power. His blue-print had no room for competition for power between parties which induced its own brand of abuse, polarised the rich and the poor or caste or community, and threatened democracy by corruption, casteism, an uholy alliance with multinationals, the captains of industry, the rural rich and of late criminals.

It is this background of recent events that has stirred a discussion on the most desirable form of democracy. We cannot agree that a failed system given a new chance will not fail again. We do not want to lose so precious a right and protection as proffered by democracy. What are we to do? We do not want to get back the dark ages of Maharajas and Badshahs, however charismatic a few of them have been. Nor do we wish to be under the jackboots of a fire-spittiing, uniform-touting dictator, nor the guile of the fire-eating dragon nor the beguiled preys of Ram or Krishna consciousness. We want to be human and Indian, a redeemer of the poor, not a techno-slave but a respector of all art and craft and the discoverer of a new dream that will not over time turn into another chain round our feet.

On the death of ideology, with the demise of the Soviet Union there is little to divide party from party. The ideological basis is gone. It reminds me of a meeting I had with a Labour Party representative I had gone to meet in England in 1995 to attend the centenary of my alma mater, the London School of Economics. I asked him what the term New Labour meant. He replied that the Conservatives made many promises they did not keep. Thy New Labour will implement them better. To which I retorted whether thay thought they were better conservatives than the Conservatives. The fellow, at a loss for an answer, made good his departure post haste. Since party differences have become phoney, the parties differ only as much as tweedledum and tweedledee and will perform broadly similarly.

THE world at large is in search of new tools for democracy. There was the students movement in France in the sixties and a JP movement in Bihar in India in the seventies. In South America the church has carved a progressive role for itself. The whole of South America has been up in arms against the American dominated market economy and World Bank/IMF advice. To Cuba has been added Columbia in the rank of Communists. In India, two great leaders, M.N. Roy and Jayaprakash Narayan, have at different times advocated partyless democracy. Niether the Soviet Union nor Nepal have been good examples of partyless democracy. Direct democracy is only suitable for small states and a small body of electors. A combination of direct democracy and representative democracy can be as bad for the same reasons as party democracy except by a referendum on policy issues whatever it costs.

JP’s later ideas, evolved in course of the JP movement, are more relevant and worthwhile, namely, an electoral college of panchayat mukhiyas to select a candidate unanimously and becoming the people’s candidate with whom the parties could compete.

Similarly Gandhi’s blue-print of a Constitution which require elections to be held indirectly bottom upwards could be tried for two-thirds of the Rajya Sabha. The current electoral colleges for the Rajya Sabha have only one-third members elected through the present crop of MLAs and MPs. A bolder scheme would be to have one-third members of the Assembly also as per Gandhi’s or JP’s blue-print.

Finally, the tendency of the parliamentary system to resemble more and more the presidential system by vesting all power in the Prime Minister should be curbed by requiring every Minister, Cabinet or otherwise, to be approved by Parliament as in the USA.

The all-party delegation to J&K has produced some heartening tentative results and gets over the trust deficit of the government. In the crisis-ridden atmosphere round the country an all-party government would be very suitable. The first national government also pooled talent from a number of parties, including Shyama Prasad Mukherji from the Hindu Mahasabha and Babasaheb Ambedkar, at the intitiative of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru. It is time an all-party government was again formed at the Centre to ease the tension round the country and provide a larger pool of talent.

The majority principle is not always the best principle. The principle of unanimity, an indigenous principle, should be adopted for the panchayats and at other levels to the extent possible to promote solidarity. The majority principle should be adopted only if the unanimity principle fails to deliver a result twice.

The party whip should be reserved for no-confidence or financial motions and abandoned for motions on policy matters to give parliamen-tarians freedom to vote and abide by their conscience.

Cases of ministerial and, Secretary/Additional Secretary level breaucratic corruption should be dealt with by a committee which includes the PM, the Leader of the Opposition and the Home Minister.

There would be plenty more instances which need reform. This debate is being raised to invite more views.

The author is the Convenor of Lok Paksh, Patna/Delhi. He can be contacted at shankarsharan77@

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