Sunday, February 9, 2014

Primaries: Good Idea, Bad Timing

Rahul Gandhi has currently set off a rare mini-revolt in his party with his primaries in a limited number of Lok Sabha constituencies. The idea, adopted from the US presumably without any study on feasibility, calls for local Congress workers, leaders and common people who become Congress members to vote for the Congress candidate in their Lok Sabha Constituency. Of course, this is opposed to the current setup in the Congress, in which the high command selects candidates behind closed doors.

OK, so Rahul Gandhi gets a lot of flak from the media. Just about everybody is laughing at him. But to be fair, this is a really good idea for Indian democracy. It has been said ad nauseum that our political parties, technically private bodies, do not have any inner-party democracy (except the Left and to an extent the BJP) and are tightly controlled by vested interests. The Congress is at the very pinnacle of that rot, with the First Family of India right at its helm. By pushing for such deep democracy in the party, Rahul is taking on a huge challenge and doing much good for India. It is one thing to hold elections for NSUI and other bodies which do not directly affect major elections and quite another to bring democracy at the very doorstep of elections.

However, as expected, the move is generating a great deal of heat. It seems to have been understood that sitting MPs would not be subjected to primaries, but that assumption was disproved when some Congress seats showed up in the much-edited list. On expected lines, a bunch of loyalists were assembled to 'volunteer' their seats to the primaries, the usual sycophancy. But the damage had been done by then. It is clear that the Congress is ready to pay lip service to Rahul Gandhi but will fight back when he steps on important toes.

What Mr. Gandhi fails to see is the tight grip that a small group of leaders have on the party. He might like to believe that thanks to his surname, he enjoys absolute power in the party, but the truth is that a small coterie of leaders actually calls the shots. Indeed, he seems unwilling to recognize this fact, as is made amply clear by the fact that Digvijaya Singh, whose popularity in MP is round about zero, is seen as his political guru. The Congress cannot be free of these vested interests as long as they hold such power on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, something that will ironically require the dissolution of the dynasty itself.

Primaries are a good idea, they will strengthen democracy in India by making parties more democratic. But the Congress, and most parties, are nowhere near ready. Mr. Gandhi, it seems, is thinking well ahead of his time, which is not what the party needs this election season. 

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