The issues plaguing our electoral system have much to do with the tyranny of political parties and any step towards reforming the system on this path is a welcome. The following article was written in February 1961 and published in the Freedom First magazine. It challenged the popular notion of multi-party democracy. The author M.A. Venkata Rao discussed the modalities of a party-less democracy and proposed structural adjustments.
Distressed by the Himalayan evils that have corrupted public life and administration during these years of self-rule, thoughtful people are suggesting a form of parliamentary democracy without the party system. The late Mr M. N. Roy had worked out the idea in some detail. And now Mr. Jayaprakash Narayan is mobilising public opinion by means of seminars and the circulation of concrete proposals among uncommitted thinkers.
The first question whether such a system is desirable does not need much persuasion to those aware of the evils that the party system has brought in its wake. The first casualty is that of moral and intellectual conscience. The party whip demands loyal support even when the member disapproves of the measure under contention. The fear of losing his parliamentary seat with the defeat of the party (that has been won at great expense) brings many a member to heel. Majority rule is prostituted too often to pass measures to win the suffrage of the people or a class of the people, like the astronomical subsidies paid in the USA to farmers to refrain from producing too much, whether grains or commercial crops.The American way of life with its sacred principle of free competition is thus flagrantly violated and no party has been able to end the policy for fear of losing the farmer’s vote. In India, even grave excesses committed by the administration like police firing ending in the death of dozens of citizens have been refused judicial review for fear of revealing the extent of the enormity indulged in. The unprecedented provincial jealousy in Assam issuing in riot and arson to drive a section of population out of the State has escaped inquiry and punishment for fear of losing party popularity.
In the financial sphere, the way in which the ruling party is collecting campaign funds from industrialists has been a scandal. The narrow-minded feelings of caste solidarity have had such a field day since independence that all ideals of integral nationalism and individual merit have been shamefully jettisoned. The natural process of transcending tribalism and extending social competition and emulation to the whole arena of the nation, under the principle that everyone in the nation is to have an equal chance on the ground of merit and service, has been halted by patty men rallying caste support in return for jobs and other favours. Indeed the extent of dissatisfaction with the role of the ruling party is so great today that many fear that India too may follow (suddenly without warning) the way of the rest of the newly independent countries of Asia and succumb to dictatorship. The situation today here is not much superior to that of the regime of Chiang Kai Shek on the eve of the communist takeover in 1949.
What then is the remedy? Mr. Narayan’s suggestion is that of jettisoning the party altogether. What the administration in a democracy needs is a number of representatives of the people to whom the tasks of government are to be entrusted. It has been the solid result of history that no individual or family can be entrusted permanently with the powers and privileges of government. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Monarchies, aristocracies or oligarchies belong to the immaturity of political evolution. People’s representatives elected on the widest franchise possible should elect the governors of the country, watch their policies and doings from day to day and dismiss them if they are found unworthy or incompetent. Democracy has come into existence to enforce such responsibility on the holders of power.
Representatives also interpret the interests of the people and help in translating them into practicable policies from time to time. The permanent civil servant will not concern himself with policy making but will occupy himself with the expert task if realising policy in the details of administration. The combination of the amateur representative and expert administrator has been found beneficial in democratic administration.
These functions can be performed, it is felt by the sponsors of party-less democracy, without the organisation of rival political parties, each appealing to the people as if public salvation depended exclusively on returning them to power in preference to the others. There is something false and undignified in such claims. Power should be conferred unsought on worthy persons by a discerning public. It should not be sought with passion and the pledging of exclusive loyalties to groups.
The party system has been so ingrained everywhere in the modern world where democracy prevails that an alternative way of electing and supervising leaders of government seems unthinkable. But there is nothing unthinkable or contrary to human nature or political actuality or possibility in the idea of democracy without parties. It is suggested that voters’ associations be formed in each polling booth area. Voters in such areas will meet some time before the elections and discuss the several ideas, principles and policies before the public mind from the standpoint of immediate realisation by the next government to be elected. Teachers, political thinkers and men of experience in every line- doctors , lawyers, cooperators, merchants, industrialists and workers sufficiently awake to the appeal of public questions and good government will bring their minds and experience to bear on current ideas.
The small community of the polling booth district will revive the primary community corresponding to the village panchayat community. They may function like a club with departments to cater to the other interests of culture and develop a face-to-face community in which members get interested in each other as full persons and not merely representatives of a narrow line of business or occupation. Democracy in government by public discussion and the voters’ association can provide a forum for’ discussion and healthy clash of ideas from all points of view. Abstract ideas from books and accounts of experience from other countries may be tested in the light of common sense, experience and current needs of the country as they appear to the voters.
The function performed by the party of formulating clear-cut programmes out of the floating welter of ideas and proposals may be performed by leading members of the voters’ association. Voters’ associations from all the different districts of the city may meet periodically for discussion so that ideas could be pooled and currents of public opinion may pervade the whole city in all the constituencies . Mr. Jayaprakash Narayan envisages full discussion and the canvass of all relevant ideas but without the distorting influence of the party. Ideas will be discussed and entertained on their own merit as affording guidance to policy makers.
One great advantage of this system if adopted is that the people of the locality can meet as citizens without incurring the displeasure of ruling parties.At present many people, particularly, from the commercial and industrial classes, are afraid of seeming to support opposition parties. I know of authentic cases where the police have called upon wealthy people who had attended meetings of the Swatantra or Jana Sangh parties on the pretext of private enquiries. There is intimidation at many levels and in different degrees today vitiating the atmosphere. A party-less democracy will certainly clear the air. In fact, some prominent members of the suburbs in many cities have asked for such non-party associations under whose auspices they could all meet and hear the views of different leaders without fear of seeming to support the opposition.
The voters’ association will function all the time following current problems, Indian and foreign, as a discussion club but at election time, it will consider the choice of representatives. Mr. Narayan suggests that ‘each voters’ association might nominate three of their members. All these members from all the constituencies can then meet in an electoral college which will nominate candidates. The scramble for tickets so deleterious to political morals will be eliminated. To provide choice, they will have to nominate three or four persons for each constituency as competing candidates. They will have become known to each other through the meetings of the voters association held throughout the year. People with clear views and with a capacity for forceful expression will easily stand out from the rest of the citizen body.
The elections will perform the final function of choosing the legislators. The legislators, say some 200 in number in the States of the Union, will then choose the Ministers by election from among themselves. The present system of the party choosing the Chief Minister and he nominating his colleagues will not be resorted to, naturally, in the absence of parties. All Ministers will be elected by the whole body of legislators who will all have equal status. A chief will be chosen by the Ministers from among themselves. He will not have the power of appointing his colleagues and will not have much more power than the rest.
The legislators will discuss all relevant proposals and under the lead of ministers will formulate policies and programmes for being carried out in their term of office. They will not be divided into different groups on the basis of parties each committed to certain principles or party programmes. The programmes will be shaped on the basis of the merits of ideas from the standpoint of national interest as a whole. The deliberations will have the character of scientific discussion, taking all facts and possibilities into account. Administrative experts and special commissions for studying difficult and complex proposals and questions will furnish the data necessary for a wise decision. The procedure of formulating programmes will not be distorted by the inward anxiety to promise more than is possible or desirable to win support for the party at the next elections.
The press and pamphlet and platforms will also contribute as now to the mobilisation of ideas relating to public needs and programmes. There is nothing to prevent the Government from combining ideas from different philosophies into practicable programmes. For instance, it is possible to have a mixed economy programme combining socilist and individualist outlooks. The question of the priority or otherwise of heavy industries in the Plan can be discussed in terms of immediate effects.on the economy such as the level of prices, inflation and so on without taking a final decision on the theoretical value of communism. It is possible to evolve social security programmes without paying hostages to socialism and centralising all economic power. It can be done through private insurance aided by the Government if necessary.
It is known that expenditures on social security such as old age pensions, socialised medicine, unemployment aid sickness insurance have risen so high that it has become more profitable for the beneficiaries to ask for their abolition in return for tax reliefs! Parties are tempted to increase these benefits to win the support of pressure groups and the mass of voters, particularly the most numerous of them, namely, the lower middle class. In some countries welfare legislation has advanced so much that the classes contributing to the public exchequer in their period of earning are beginning to resent such a large proportion of their earnings being spent on those who have passed the age of work!
The slogan of “social justice” has obliterated all restrictions stemming from merit, individual contribution and self-reliance. The process of soaking the rich has given place to that of soaking the poor through indirect taxation on all goods of common use.These temptations will disappear if party-less democracy can be got into working order. Instead of each party trying to stand well with the public as executive givers of plenty, deserved or undeserved, individual Ministers will stand out in the public eye for efficiency and integrity and devotion of public duty.The immense expense of party organisation, not only during election time but also during ordinary times for maintaining party bosses while out of office (and those out of office when their colleagues are enjoying office) will be saved. Pressure groups can be resisted more by individual Ministers and exposed than by party leaders anxious for augmenting party finances. Such Ministers will be in demand and will be elected again and again without the interruptions of party exigencies.
In Switzerland, some such system of democratic functioning has been in existence for a long time. Parties exist there but are not regarded as exclusive and sacrosanct. Ministers are chosen by the elected representatives more for personal merit cutting across party alignments. It has been possible there on account for some favourable circumstances in that country. The cantons are little democracies in themselves wherein individual merit stands out in the primary community. Also, there is a high level of employment so that disappointed party men need not put pressure for illegal and unworthy gratifications from the ruling party. Also, Ministers need not accumulate enough to last them for the rest of their lives! They can get employment any time. Moreover, the great thing making such a system possible is the psychology of public service and simple living prevailing among the Swiss. These are virtues congenial to our best tradition and can be captured again.
The difficulty stems from the fact that it is very difficult to affect a change from the present system. A body of volunteers have to set about organising voters’ associations throughout the country and the Government should be persuaded to cease recognising parties during elections. But if it can be realised, the gain to political life will be immense.
The article was originally published here.