Rahul Gandhi is often accused of liberally sprinkling his occasional public pronouncements with banal generalities on anti-corruption measures, women’s empowerment, and pro-poor legislations, which tantamount to sweet nothings in the prevalent anti-Congress mood in the country. But one specific proposal — holding primaries in 15 Lok Sabha constituencies — aired at the recent Delhi AICC session has captured the imagination of, even, the naysayers. While 15 is a number falling far too short of making a definitive impact in the upcoming general elections, Rahul must be credited with spotting and attempting to rectify a genuine flaw in the Congress’ ticket distribution system. Come election time, scenes of ticket seekers making a beeline outside 24 Akbar Road and 10 Janpath, in the hope of directly appealing to the “high command” scarcely come as a surprise anymore.
Holding primaries comes as a course correction, even for Rahul, who was accused of foisting unwinnable candidates on state and district Congress units in assembly elections held in the past four years. With the constituencies of sitting Congress MPs also included in the 15 seats where primaries will be held, it remains to be seen whether grassroots Congress workers can upset heavyweights.
In recent decades, a number of pedigreed leaders hailing from political dynasties, and technocrats, have “paratrooped” into senior positions in the Congress party at the expense of ordinary party workers, including student and trade union leaders. There is no doubt that some of these paratroopers have become an asset to the party. But the Congress has reached a point where its local and feeder units are weakening and its support base is dwindling. Rahul has correctly identified the importance of educated, young people joining the Congress but without inner-party democracy and a level-playing field to rise up the ladder or make their voices, very few youngsters have responded to his call.
The obvious inspiration for Rahul’s latest experiment is the US, where the Republican and Democratic parties hold primary elections before the general elections to city, state, federal and presidential polls. The robustness of this format is evident from the meteoric rise of Barack Obama from a Chicago community activist and law professor to Illinois state senator in 1997, United States senator in 2004, and his subsequent upset defeat of Hillary Clinton in the 2007-08 presidential primaries. Among the criticisms voiced against the US primary system is that it has become a time-consuming and expensive process over the years. Rahul’s urgency to experiment has stemmed from the remarkable performance of the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi. The AAP nominated several candidates after inviting suggestions from the public. While this was a rudimentary attempt, the bottom-up nature of candidate selection has not been lost on other political parties.
Among the challenges that the primary process will face, as Rahul attempts to scale it up, is the inroads it will have to make into the pocket boroughs that many Congress leaders jealously guard.
Already, some union ministers have reportedly succeeded in getting their constituencies spared from the primaries. There are worries that the primaries will fan factionalism and further widen the divides within the party. Even as he runs the risk of antagonising leaders, this is Rahul’s chance to enthuse the party rank-and-file. He needs to ensure that the primaries do not end up in symbolism. More importantly, Rahul’s leadership desperately needs a success-story. These 15 primaries could become his ticket for a great comeback.