The Aam Aadmi Party’s decision, announced by National Convenor and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal this week, to ask the people of Punjab to decide its chief ministerial candidate for the upcoming Assembly elections is double-edged. It can be read as throwing the question to the people, making them part of decision-making in the party. That is, as a sort of referendum politics. After all, democracies sometimes use referendums as a tool to resolve questions where there is a political deadlock, or to measure exactly where people stand on an important issue. An opening up of the often top-down and opaque decision-making approach that is used to appoint chief ministers by several parties can only be welcome. And yet, the AAP’s move also seems like a short-cut. By lobbing to the people a question that should be settled by intra-party mechanisms and processes, in which the party’s own elected MLAs must play a leading role, it seems like the AAP is taking the easy — and crowd-pleasing — way out.
In a parliamentary system, political parties are essential mediating institutions between the government and the people. To carry out their functions and responsibilities, they need to institutionalise an inner life — processes and mechanisms that help them make choices and take decisions. Moreover, in a country as large and diverse as India, where elections can be about many and often contradicting things at the same time — identity, governance, development, social security — political parties and elected representatives that belong to them navigate the complexity of these needs and aspirations. This is all the more so in a state like Punjab which has seen a change of chief minister barely months ago, and where the choice of a CM candidate is, or it should be, the result of a negotiation within the party, between different interests and groups. Outsourcing that critical decision to “the people” — as the AAP seems to be doing — is a cop-out.
This is not the first time, of course, that the AAP has relied on the “referendum”. In 2013, it asked the people of Delhi whether or not to form the government with Congress support and in 2015, it went to the people again on the demand for full statehood for Delhi. Even at that time, the use of the instrument seemed problematic: Both issues were not ones where a simple “yes” or “no” sufficed, their resolution called for a more nuanced debate. While a referendum on certain contentious issues can lend legitimacy to a government’s decision, excessively and indiscriminately relying on “direct democracy” can end up undermining the very institutions that make democratic governance in a large and diverse country sustainable.