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The curious case of inner party democracy in Kerala

The whip culture in the political system should be done away with, and instead, the more significant ideological debates featuring in the socio-cultural context should be encouraged to maintain the sanctity and survival of the political space

March 26, 2021 / 05:15 PM IST

Kerala is well poised for one of the crucial elections in the state's political history. Banking on the comfortable victory in the recently concluded local self-government elections and with the confidence garnered from the various pre-poll survey results, the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) has its election campaign in full swing, eyeing for a second term in power.

With all its infightings and leadership crises, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) is fighting a battle to prove its mettle. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is searching for ways to dent the traditional bipolar structure of Kerala politics.

With the candidates being declared by all the major political fronts, we witness widescale uproars from the district and local factions of various political parties. Undermining these protests as mere dissatisfaction against a particular candidate will not be wise. It has various political and social implications in the context of a world that is predominantly moving towards a presidential system and the power being centralised at a single point than being devolved.

The protests are manifestations of the increasing tendency to incline towards the presidential system of the campaign that India has been experiencing for some time, in contrast to the parliamentary system on which the institution is based on.

Local Protests


Kerala is generally considered the prime example for decentralisation and devolution power to the grassroots level. Introspection is needed in the case of power devolution within the setup of political parties. The new norm seems to the state or central leadership negating/overriding the suggestions made by the local leadership. The case is not so different even in the Left parties, which have a strong cadre system and volunteer network up to the lowest strata.

The protests at Ponnani and Chadayamangalam against the declared candidates are examples of the disagreement among the local leadership against the state leadership for not considering their demands in choosing the candidate. This particular scenario can be considered as is a clear pointer towards diminishing inner party democracy.

The Supreme Court verdict on inner party democracy (Indian National Congress Vs Institute of Social Welfare & Others, 2002) is also helping the parties impose the prerogatives of state/central leadership over the local demands, as the verdict clearly says that no action can be taken against any party that does not follow the norms of inner party democracy.

Local Strength

The case of Kerala is that the local governments are established institutional setups compared to the rest of India. The elections are held every five years. For the last two decades, Kerala assembly elections follow the local polls within six months if they consider the candidate selections' overall preparation time to the voting day.

In a way, it is comparable to the United States primaries, where the party system takes a year to select their delegates to choose the party candidates for different offices going for the polls. Unlike the US system, the government-run primaries and the delegates, super delegates and caucus are not institutionalised in India. So, the local elections could be a parable to the government-run primaries there. Unfortunately, most parties do not consider them as the channels and platforms for testing their future leadership.

There are booth committees, local committees, area committees, and district committees in most of the parties. How much power they have transferred to the local level office bearers to establish the local democracy leads to the vitiating scenario at present. Especially in the age of social media, the local cadre cannot be patronised or penalised for their open remarks and views. Instead, trying to intervene from the top to assess the ground situation may thwart the spirit of democracy.

Upholding Democracy

The most important institutions in a parliamentary democracy are the political parties. Both the ruling front and Opposition have got their duties and responsibilities to ensure that the true meaning of democracy is upheld. Since the power is devolved to the general public through their elected representatives, the demands and suggestions of the local factions/committees of political parties should be considered along with the decisions of the state and central leaderships.

To reap the benefits of a fully-functional democracy and to ensure power devolution to the grassroots levels, political parties should follow the principles of democracy within their system. There are appointed committee reports suggesting the election commission to seek the status report from political parties on the election process that they have held to appoint office bearers, and failing in the submission leading to the disqualification of the party from the electoral politics.

The whip culture in the political system should be done away with, and instead, the more significant ideological debates featuring in the socio-cultural context should be bottomed up to maintain the sanctity and survival of the political space. Interestingly, Kerala has all the background settings ready for such improvisation and the present protests and agitations at the local level could set a new thinking among the political leadership.
D Dhanuraj is Chairman, Centre for Public Policy Research, Kochi. Views are personal.
Goutham KA is Associate (Projects), Centre for Public Policy Research. Views are personal.
first published: Mar 22, 2021 12:49 pm

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