Lessons in Democracy from Farmers’ Movement for Political Parties


Farmers blocked KMP Expressway, Kundli border against new agricultural laws during the 100 days completion on Saturday in New Delhi.  — Photo: IANS

Indians need to prepare their political parties for the Constitution. A democratic constitution cannot be worked by parties which themselves do not function democratically

A.G. Noorani

RECENTLY, 12 opposition parties in India came together in a rare united front to extend their full support to the call given by the farmers’ alliance Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM) for a countrywide protest to mark six long months of protest this week. It was a feat of organisation. There was supply of electricity, medical facilities, provision of food, facilities for bathing, sleeping and full accounting. An old saying goes that no one who lives near a Sikh gurdwara can go hungry. The langar takes care of all regardless of religious differences.

They have successfully foiled the government’s expectation that, if ignored, they would pack up. They did not. It was a remarkable feat and they have adhered to Covid guidelines, a lesson to political parties.

Among the 12 political parties are Sonia Gandhi’s Congress, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress and Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress. Absent was Mayawati from UP. A joint statement issued by the top leaders of some of these parties said, “The central government must stop being obdurate and immediately resume talks with SKM….” On May 12, opposition leaders had jointly written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi demanding the repeal of farm laws.

A week is a long time in politics, the British prime minister Harold Wilson had said. The Uttar Pradesh elections are due next year; the general elections are due in 2024. Mayawati has given ample notice that her support hinges on matters other than policies. Nor is it certain that others will live up to their promises. A united front of parties is a distant dream. It is the internal state of parties that causes immediate unease. The Shiv Sena is a family concern of its founder’s son Uddhav Thackeray, chief minister of Maharashtra. Sharad Pawar calls his tune. The Congress’ policies are Sonia Gandhi’s best-kept secret. Her Congress is largely a one-man show. She is determined to make her son Rahul her successor. Partymen, bar a few stooges, disagree.

When the constituent assembly completed its labours, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, chairman of the drafting committee, bluntly said in 1949, that “however good a constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it happen to be a bad lot. However bad a constitution may be, it may turn out to be good if those who are called to work it happen to be a good lot. The working of a constitution does not depend wholly upon the nature of the constitution. The constitution can provide only the organs of state such as the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. The factors on which the working of those organs of the state depend are the people and the political parties they will set up as their instruments to carry out their wishes and their politics. Who can say how the people of India and their parties will behave?”

It is now seven decades since the constitution came into force. He would be a bold man who can claim that the political parties have lived up to Ambedkar’s expectations. The political system has not lived up to the needs of the constitutional system. It is not the constitution which has failed. It is political parties and the politicians who have failed the constitution.

Introspection is long overdue. Indians need to prepare the political parties for the constitution. A democratic constitution cannot be worked by parties which themselves do not function democratically. To go no further, the former ruling party at the centre, the Congress, has not held its organisational elections. There are no signs of its doing so in the near future either. Promises were made repeatedly in recent months only to be broken repeatedly.

In 1980, then chief election commissioner S.L. Shakdhar said “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 … that parties do not follow their own constitutions. They hold no party elections. They function for years on an ad hoc basis.” Later, he presented his report on the general elections of 1980 to parliament, listing three major defects. One was that even basic observance of constitutional provisions was missing; the second was the failure to hold organisational elections, and the last pertained to the lack of accountability to a general body of members. These defects in parties continue still.

In a parliamentary democracy, it is particularly important to have strong, well-knit parties with roots in the masses because parliamentary government is based very much on conventions. The best sanction for the observance of conventions by the ruling party is the political check by the opposition parties. A good guarantee for the observance of democratic norms by the ruling party is its own democratic character.


(The writer is an author and lawyer based in Mumbai. The views expressed are personal. Taken from The Dawn).

Clarion India - News, Views and Insights about Indian Muslims, Dalits, Minorities, Women and Other Marginalised and Dispossessed Communities.


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