Contrary to popular wisdom, inner-party dissidence, even when expressed in public, has the potential to strengthen democratic practices within political parties. It may be argued that such public defiance, in fact, needs to be viewed as an essential tool to democratise organisational practices.
In the contemporary context, political parties are handicapped by a singular lack of organisational democracy. The tendency of the rank and file to question party leadership outside formal structures is usually considered sacrilegious. Given this, it may be hasty on our part to dismiss the recent public displays of dissidence involving the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
It is significant is that groups of assertive dissidents today are not confining themselves to voicing their critique of the party leadership or its functioning at designated inner-party fora alone. They are going public with disagreements and criticisms even while staying on in the party. This is a relatively recent phenomenon in Indian political culture, one which seems to gain more currency in new parties like the AAP, which do not have rigid organisational structures.
To many, such public criticism may seem blasphemous and tantamount to anti-party activity. But this public perception has been shaped by a political culture where party organisations are seen and accepted as deeply hierarchical bodies, and party leaders and members are expected to obey the party-line without asking any questions — least of all in public.
For a long time this strategy has proven its efficacy in controlling and managing dissidence, rendering rendering the faces of critics invisible and silencing their voices. What happens within party fora remains opaque, becoming fodder for media speculation. Essentially, such functional rigidity has left political parties bereft of inner-party democracy, and the culture of confining dissent within party structures has strengthened dominant factions and dictators within parties.
For instance, inflexible organisational practices within Communist parties of all hues has repeatedly manifested in a culture of control. Party decisions are always projected as unanimous even after they are heavily contested within the party fora. There is virtually a gag order on party leaders, barring them from publicly explaining the different positions taken by the different factions within the party. As a result, every contentious decision ends up as a matter of speculation.
Its not the case that Communist parties lack a history of battling inner-party differences - whether these pertain to ideological or tactical and strategic issues. Yet, such tussles within the party, kept under wraps, have tended to strengthen a handful of Politburo members while stifling dissident opinions. Any attempt to take the differences outside the party forum has been severely punished by expulsion or marginalisation of dissidents.
Recently there has been much talk — almost all of it negative — around the spate of public rebellions by AAP leaders and sections of the party’s rank and file. In that long list of renegades, Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan, undoubtedly, are the two most well known faces. But since the duo’s exit last year, there have been many more incidents of dissidence — which today seem to be spiralling out of control. Some among the dissidents have raised serious questions about the organisation while others appear to have been driven by the desire to settle personal scores. If some dissidents have questioned Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s dictatorial style of functioning and the party’s masculine culture, others have rebelled after being denied poll tickets or posts in government.
Of late, such voices of disaffection have grown louder in Punjab, where the AAP is making a serious bid to come to power in the forthcoming assembly elections. In a classic case of rebellion spurred by ticket denial, a report in The Tribune on 1 September said: “Hundreds of AAP youth circle leaders belonging to Bassi Pathana have decided to resign en masse to protest the allotment of party ticket to an ‘outsider.’” There is no doubt that the AAP unit in Punjab is now embroiled in a serious factional feud which is being played out in the public domain through leaks, meetings and press conferences.
Some among the renegades have drawn the party’s attention to the alleged sexual exploitation of women by leaders. According to a report in The Indian Express on 8 September, Punjab’s AAP legislator Devinder Sehrawat has alleged that “several complaints are coming from Punjab pertaining to sexual exploitation of women seeking party tickets. The MLA, in his letter to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, has even mentioned names of some senior AAP leaders for allegedly indulging in such practices.”
Clearly, there is a no-holds-barred war within the party. But let’s not beat about the bush: the AAP is not the only party to be caught in such wrangles. The difference lies in the manner in which such disaffection is being aired by party leaders and legislators. Given their public manifestation, the leadership is constantly under a glare of media scrutiny.
In a different genre of serious issue-based dissidence, we have lately heard the senior PDP leader Muzaffar Hussain Baig, also the party’s Lok Sabha MP from Baramulla, publicly urging that the Mehbooba Mufti-led PDP government to resign if it is not able to deliver on its “agenda of governance.”
“We have not been able to deliver at the ground level according to the agenda of governance, which makes the cadre of the party disgruntled. But I have every hope that it (the alliance) will deliver in the coming years,” Baig told The Indian Express. “If it fails to deliver, both parties, BJP and PDP, I mean the government, should resign. What’s the point of the chief minister resigning and a new chief minister coming in?”
Some may argue that such open rebellions weaken the party. But the flip side to that point of view is that factionalism and dissidence are to a political party what elections are to parliamentary democracy. And by allowing some of this chronic dissidence to play out in the public domain, a political party acquires greater transparency. Insistence on keeping such rebellions within the four walls of the headquarters does not bode well for inner-party democracy. In fact, it only leads to crushing of dissent by the powerful and the dominant within the party hierarchy.