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The Blackball Committee

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Hindustan Times

Let club rules apply

January 2, 2006

by Sumit Mitra

Every decent club of gentlemen (and ladies, as the times are changing) has a 'blackball committee'. Even those elite bodies that think the term 'club' is too common, and would prefer something more impressive like 'institute', have an in-house system of keeping out, through a balloting system, new applicants who are not congenial to the existing members. The principle involved is that a club is self-perpetuating, with old members alone selecting new ones.

The selection is entrusted to a committee whose members keep a low profile — other members do not know who they are. They choose between two colours, white or black, when the name of a new applicant comes up. The committee, again, perpetuates itself. Its members cannot propose or second an application for club membership. Voting system differs from club to club and time to time, but not the two colours of ballot. White is for approval and black for rejection. If the committee is not too large — “12 and under 18 members”, as in the rules of election of the Travellers Club, from Dickens' Dictionary of London (1879) — a single blackball can slam the club's gate on the aspiring member.

But the fundamental, and almost universal, rule that governs blackballing is the secrecy of the ballot. Albert Mackey's Encyclopedia of Freemasonry — Freemasons being among the largest international orders organised on rigid rules of membership — says: “Secrecy of the ballot (for admitting new members) is essential to its perfection as its independence. If the votes were to be given viva voce, it is impossible that the improper influences of fear or interests should not sometimes be exerted, and timid members be thus induced to vote contrary to their own reason and conscience.”

If the Election Commission is pondering over the message of the cash-for-query and wads-for-MPLAD scams, and wondering how to wield the broomstick, it should check out club rule books. In India, most political parties, big and small, have 'election committees' or 'election authority', whose job is to nominate party candidates for election to Parliament or the state assemblies. Party constitutions trumpet them as independent bodies, but they are nothing but mice squeaking under the chair of the 'supreme leader', or the ruling cabal.

The BJP — worst 'stung' by its MPs falling prey to video-recorded bribing — has, in its constitution (Article XXVI), provision for a central election committee that makes the “final selection of candidates for the state legislatures and Parliament”. In effect, the selection is the outcome of months of intense lobbying, and some rough and ready calculation of an uncouthly termed attribute, 'winnability'.

The Congress is no different, though it claims its central election authority is 'independent'. And so is everyone else — the SP, BSP, DMK, AIADMK, NCP, etc. If the elected body is the face of a party, and the organisation its head, then the head has no mechanism to choose what the face should look like. The disconnect is nothing new. It dates back to the day when the English started talking about gifting a 'responsible government' to India. After Independence, and especially after the collapse of the Congress as the biggest party in 1989, politics became more about a mad scramble for the face, let the head be damned. Shahabuddin is winnable. Period. Tomorrow it may be Abu Salem. Who knows?

The CPI(M) is an exception and the unlikeliest party to be rewarding for the Cobrapost kind of sting operation. In the early Nineties, a young party MP started behaving in a wayward manner and was promptly shown the door. Its elected members function under party committees that screen every question a member raises and his every action, either in the House or in the committees. In many ways, it is a party modelled on the secrecy and internal control of Freemasonry.

The BJP wished to follow this model but its head, arguably the RSS, proved ineffective as it remained de-linked from the face. If the BJP says it is nothing but the front office of the RSS, no Nitish Kumar or Chandrababu Naidu would come near it. That scuppers its dream of leading a victorious coalition to power once again. But the more it becomes a platform party, like the Congress, the more it loses control over its elected representatives. No wonder L.K. Advani, in his swansong speech as BJP president, vented his spleen on the “Congress culture” for corrupting his “party with a difference”.

The EC has taken some admirable steps to infuse democracy in the political parties, including the US-primaries style party elections (though these have been a sham till now). It should now ensure self-perpetuating committees with authority to blackball electoral aspirants through secret ballot. The committee, once formed, would not be disrupted by a presidential fiat. Nor can its members, or their kith and kin, contest for elective posts. To them, the party must remain a club of like-minded people and the ballot is the instrument to keep the incompatible out.

Blackball originated in ancient Greece, where people were excluded by using the ostrakhon, or potsherd, as a ballot in voting. That gave birth to the word, ostracise.

Further Reading:

Freemasonry in India