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May 17, 2023

Congress’s Struggles To Choose Karnataka CM Point to a Need to Reform Party Constitutions

There is a basic inconsistency in Indian democracy: While voters in a constituency have no difficulty in accepting a successful candidate who they did not vote for, faction leaders with minority support in legislature parties don’t assume that they are bound by a similar principle.
KPCC president D. K. Shivakumar with former Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah, during the latter's 75th birthday celebrations, in Davangere, Karnataka, August 3, 2022. Rahul Gandhi can be seen in the background. Photo: PTI/Shailendra Bhojak

While Karnataka’s voters delivered a decisive verdict on which party should govern them for the next five years, the Congress party in the state is nowhere near to finding a lasting solution to the rivalry between its two tall leaders, Siddaramaiah and D.K. Shivakumar. The impasse in choosing a chief minister and forming a government, observers say, has taken the sheen off the party’s mammoth victory at the hustings.

Indeed, this is now becoming a trend, as the victorious parties in elections – which did not see the projection of a chief ministerial candidate by a political party seeking a positive mandate from the people – find themselves without a post-poll plan in place. It is tempting to attribute this state of affairs to the weak national leadership of the party, but the alternative demonstrated by the unchallenged leadership of the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo of the BJP which does not respect the overwhelming sentiment among the rank and file is not a model worthy of emulation in a democracy.

The recent split in the Shiv Sena was also a result of the party’s inability to facilitate an internal challenge to its leadership, on the basis of the democratic principle which guides voters’ choice in a constituency-based election.  The Supreme Court’s judgment on the rival factions’ claims ended up empowering the speaker of the assembly – whose neutrality is specious – to decide which of these represents the real political party.

But the court apparently missed the principle and a mechanism which can effectuate it in order to ensure democracy within the political parties. While judicial restraint would come in the way of the court entering the area of reform within the political parties, there is no reason why parties themselves could not initiate a debate on it.

In the UK, under current rules, if more than 50% of all Conservative MPs vote in support of the prime minister, they can stay as party leader and prime minister and no new vote can be triggered for 12 months.

If the leader lost the confidence vote among Conservative MPs, they would not be able to stand again – allowing any other Conservative MP to stand for the party leadership.  

Before 1965, leaders of the Conservative Party ‘emerged’ after discussion among MPs – rather than via an election.

However, in 1965, then party leader Alex Douglas-Home introduced a process according to which future leaders would need to be elected by a ballot of MPs. To succeed in the first round, a candidate would have to obtain more than 50% of the vote and be 15% clear of the second-place candidate. If none managed this, the election would continue until one candidate gains more than 50% of the votes. The current rules were introduced in 1998 by William Hague, then leader of the Conservative Party, after the party’s general election defeat in 1997. No election of the membership was held when either Michael Howard became the leader in 2003 or when Rishi Sunak became the leader in October 2022, as neither candidate was opposed.   

Scholars have tried to throw light on how the process works. 

Other parties in the UK have their own rules to regulate leadership changes internally. 

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Photo: Simon Dawson/No 10 Downing Street

This brings us to face the question: what ails the Indian political parties? The election of Mallikarjun Kharge as the Congress president, with Shashi Tharoor contesting and losing as his rival candidate, signified a huge change in the party’s internal democracy. But the party apparently is unable to introduce a similar change in the election of a legislature party leader in a transparent manner, because of the absence of suitable rules in the party constitution. 

Block vote proposal

The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, (NCRWC) in its internal discussions, before the release of its proposals and the report in the public domain for debate, had considered a ‘block vote’ proposal in order to correct the lacunae in the concept and implementation of the anti-defection law. 

The proposal – which did not see the light of day – sought to rectify the law just by changing the manner of counting the votes in the legislature in the event of division on certain motions.  According to the procedure proposed, the legislative wing of every party represented in the House shall have one block vote, which is equal in value to the number of members of that party in the House. The value of the block vote of each independent member or nominated member shall be equal to one. Under the present law, independents and nominated members would be disqualified if they join a political party. 

Under the proposed measure, the fate of the motion would be decided by counting the total value of block votes, and not individual votes. The block vote would be deemed to have been cast on that side of the motion on which a majority of the members of that block have voted. In the event of an equal number of members of a block voting for and against the motion or abstaining, the entire block would be deemed to have abstained from voting on the motion.

The proposal gave the option of a group of parties registering itself as a pre-election coalition so that all its constituents together would have one block vote during the term of the House so constituted.  This was aimed to stop a potential destabiliser from leaving a pre-election coalition. 

The proposal does not restrict the freedom of a legislator to vote according to their conscience. Only in the case of motions that would have a bearing on the stability of a government, would their vote be deemed to have been cast on the side on which a majority of the members of their block have voted.  When a member’s vote in crucial matters is counted with that of the majority of his party members and does not depend on the will of any leader, there would be no case for disqualification. This will make the Tenth Schedule to the constitution, which provides for disqualification on the ground of defection, redundant and otiose. No tears are likely to be shed for leaving it otiose, as the Anti-Defection Act has clearly led to more problems in our body polity than it could solve.  

These changes are simpler to introduce. An amendment to insert a proviso to Article 100 of the constitution, dealing with voting in parliament and Article 189 (on voting in state legislatures) is all that is required for the purpose.  

There is no reason why party constitutions can’t have similar provisions to regulate leadership elections after the conclusion of general elections, and to facilitate changes in leadership at regular intervals, if required, to ensure the smooth functioning of political parties internally, which after all, have a bearing on the quality of Indian democracy in practice.

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