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MPs or bonded labour?

September 08, 2012

THE political carnivals that were the conventions at which Republicans and Democrats selected their respective presidential candidates are over. Their lesson survives.

They were the culmination of a democratic electoral process which began with the primaries months ago; a process as organised and transparent as any election to a state institution. Only registered party members can vote in the primaries.

A similar process is at work in parliamentary democracies as well. Candidates for parliamentary elections are elected democratically by the party’s members. They are not awarded the party ticket by the party boss or the party’s ‘high command’. Precisely for this reason they have the capacity to rebel on an issue which touches their conscience.

Consider the implications of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s speech in the Central Legislative Assembly on the Hindu child marriage bill on Sept 11, 1929 which was opposed by some Hindu as well as Muslim members on religious grounds. While Jinnah acknowledged that “my constituency has not given me any mandate whatsoever of any kind”, he was quick to add that “if my constituency is so backward as to disapprove of a measure like this, then I say, the clearest duty on my part would be to say to my constituency ‘You had better ask somebody else to represent you’”.

Such a stand came all too naturally to a man who was familiar with British constitutional history and tradition. There was the famous speech which Edmund Burke delivered to his estranged constituents at Bristol on Sept 6, 1780. Their representative in parliament owed them respect, the “closest correspondence communication … But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience he ought not to sacrifice to you. …Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion”. The Bristol speech ranks to this day as a locus classicus on the independence of the MP.

That was possible only because he was selected as a candidate for election by members of his party in his constituency. British political parties are still organised constituency-wise. The constituency party’s executive shortlists the candidates. They appear before the general body and seek its mandate. Only in extreme cases do the party’s headquarters exercise a veto. This process is an integral part of the democratic functioning of the party itself. It cannot work if the party machine is not worked according to democratic norms.

This writer is not competent to opine on the working of political parties in Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. In India political parties are not run according to democratic norms. Organisational elections are either not held or, if held, perpetrate a farce.

What the chief election commissioner S.L. Shakhdhar said on Sept 26, 1980 still holds true. “Political parties make strong demands for the conduct of free and fair elections to legislative bodies, but choose to ignore the application of the same principles when it comes to the functioning of their own party organs. It has been revealed before me in various cases that I had occasion to hear that parties do not follow their own constitutions. They hold no party elections. They function for years on an ad hoc basis. …I, therefore, suggest that there should be parliamentary legislation making it obligatory on the part of every political organisation to register their body and regulate their functioning by laying down broad outlines and norms.”

No parties law has been enacted. Instead, the election law, the Representation of the People Act, 1951, was amended in 1989 to provide for registration of political parties with the Election Commission. The application must be accompanied by copies of the party’s constitution and rules. The Commission exerted itself to ask for party polls. But there has been no diminution of the powers of party bosses. They have the last say in the award of party tickets to candidates.

This undermines the democratic process as well as the federal principle. Constitutions are worked by political parties. A democratic constitution cannot properly be run by undemocratic parties. An MP who owes his seat to the party bosses at the centre is gravely handicapped when he asserts his state’s rights against the centre’s excesses.

It is, however, in the legislatures that the effect of this perversion of democratic norms is most felt. Members lack the capacity for revolt. A recent revolt by Tory MPs forced Prime Minister David Cameron to drop plans for the reform of the House of Lords and break the coalition pact with the Liberal Democrats.

Only last week Cameron was treated to much worse on the proposal for a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport. A Conservative MP Tim Yeo challenged the prime minister to show whether he was “a man or a mouse”. He poured vitriol in an article in the Daily Telegraph: “Does he want to be another Harold Macmillan, presiding over a dignified slide towards insignificance? Or is there somewhere inside his heart — an organ that still remains impenetrable to most Britons — a trace of Thatcher, determined to reverse the direction of our ship? An immediate go-ahead for a third runway will symbolise the start of a new era, the moment the Cameron government found its sense of mission. Let’s go for it”.

That most, including some cabinet members, are opposed to it is less relevant than the fact that in Britain an MP can viciously attack the party’s leader in parliament, the prime minister at that, without fear of his losing the party’s ticket for the next general election. Reason? It is awarded by the Tory constituency party and it is its confidence that matters to him.

It was not the Labour opposition but a revolt by Conservative MPs on the poll tax bill which eventually removed the powerful Margaret Thatcher from 10 Downing Street in 1989 as it had Neville Chamberlain in 1940. No constitution, no matter how ably drafted, can ensure democratic governance unless the political parties themselves function democratically.

The writer is an author and lawyer based in Mumbai.