The case of political primaries

Monday, 10 February 2014 - 6:00am IST Updated: Sunday, 9 February 2014 - 9:23pm IST | Agency: DNA
Arun Jaitley and Rahul Gandhi are obsessed with choosing the right leader(s) for their parties

In the months and weeks before Narendra Modi was named BJP’s chief campaigner for Election 2014 at Goa in June 2013, an impatient leader of opposition in Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley would argue that if leaders were to be chosen on the basis of what the party rank and file felt, then it would be Modi, and that the party was witnessing an instance of primaries. Jaitley was concerned that the top brass was not reading the writing on the party wall. For Jaitley, the inchoate popular endorsement for Modi that was expressed in party fora was an instance of the political primary. For him, this was the democratic way for choosing a leader.

Congress party vice president Rahul Gandhi has hit upon the idea of primaries as a way of dismantling the hierarchical and dynastic leadership structure. He wants to break the closed circle of leaders dominating the Congress. He seems to be of the view that leaders must emerge from the organisation’s grassroots.

It is a strange coincidence, serendipity if you will,  that the idea of primaries as an expression of popular will should have occurred to two top leaders of the two major national parties in India at around the same time. It is indeed the case that Jaitley and Gandhi each came upon the idea of primaries unaware that the other was doing the same. It seems that primaries is an idea whose time has come, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would have put it quoting Victor Hugo.

It would indeed be interesting to trace the path by which Jaitley and Gandhi concluded that the primary was the way to democratise the party system, but each for his own reason. Jaitley wanted the primary because he felt that that is the only way to get the popular Modi to lead the party in the election. For him, the primary is primarily an instrument for choosing the man whom he considered to be the right man. That is why, at the party workers’ meeting immediately after Modi was named chief campaigner, Jaitley complimented party president Rajnath Singh for displaying his leadership qualities in taking the right decision. At that moment of satisfaction, the idea of the primary seems to have totally receded into the indistinct background.

Gandhi’s desire for the primary seems to stem from an opposite motive to that of Jaitley. Gandhi wants to use this to expand the leadership base, to increase the bench strength of leaders. While Jaitley was looking to the primary to get one man in, Gandhi is looking to the primary to get many in. It might seem that Gandhi’s motive is more idealistic than that of Jaitley. It is not really so.
Jaitley felt that he was fighting for the underdog, Modi, who did not belong to the small and influential circle of decision-makers. Jaitley too was fighting his own idealistic battle through the primary.

It should not come as a surprise that Jaitley and Gandhi borrowed freely from American democracy when they hit upon the idea of primaries. There is an undeniable vibrancy and innovation in the American system, though the institutions that evolved there were the natural products of the political soil over there. What seems to have attracted these two leaders to the primary is the apparently transparent manner of choosing a candidate.

It is interesting that it does not occur to either Jaitley or Gandhi that one of the better ways of choosing a leader or leaders is a healthy and open contest among a band of contestants or contenders, and let the better man/woman emerge the winner. It seems that again for their own reasons, the two shy away from the idea of contest, of competition.

In the American system, the primary does this very thing. It is a contest and those choosing have a choice. They have an opportunity to choose from. The BJP workers did not have an opportunity to choose from. Modi was the only candidate who came forward and they did not much have a choice. Gandhi again is not looking for a healthy contest. He is the leader sitting at the top and he is devising ways to choose the middle rung leaders he needs to run the organisation and win elections. Gandhi is not challenging others to challenge him. He keeps himself above the fray.

The fatal attraction that many Indian leaders have for the American system seems to be the strong national and political leadership that is embodied in the president. This is much more so for the BJP today though even the Congress under Indira Gandhi in 1981/82 felt it. Two top Congress leaders of the day, Vasant Sathe and AR Antulay mooted the idea of a presidential form of government as more amenable to India than the Westminster model of the cabinet-in-parliament form of government. The idea was dropped quickly when suspicion was expressed that it was a means of promoting the strong leader, and making way for democratic dictatorship.

The BJP is still attracted to the idea of the American president, where two parties field their candidates and in the ensuing clash of personalities the stronger man would emerge. It is of course a momentary desire for the BJP. They know that Modi is the stronger man, and that he would outflank Gandhi.

It seems that the idea of the American president is creeping back into the political consciousness of some of the top players, and that the idea of the primary is a small beginning in that direction.
The Congress is looking for a leader and the BJP thinks it has one. The two parties are not willing to usher in competition, to introduce internal democracy in the political parties. So, the primary is a bad idea because the motive behind it is neither convincing nor reassuring.

The author is editorial consultant with dna

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