This piece was also published on Times of India (Jun 17, 2013)
Elections are in the air in India and so are the great interests and buzz that usually surround them. Tripura, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Karnataka held elections during first half of the year and witnessed striking yet expected results. Delhi, Rajasthan, Mizoram, Madhya Pradesh, and possibly Chhattisgarh too, will have elections in second half of this year and promises to be more interesting and nail-biting than ones held earlier in the year.
Of these five states, three of these have chief ministers who are serving their second or third consecutive terms and their fortunes are still shaping up and may vary from another five-year term to a total drubbing in the elections. Delhi election is shaping up to be the most interesting contest of all on many counts: Ms Sheila Dikshit, if elected again, will become only the sixth chief minister of an Indian state to win four or more consecutive terms and join the elite company of ex-chief ministers JyothiBasu of West Bengal (five terms), MohanlalSukhadia of Rajasthan (four), GegongApang of Arunachal Pradesh (four) and currently serving chief ministers Pawan Kumar Chamling of Sikkim (four) and ManikSarkar ofTripura (four). More importantly, she will be the only woman chief minister to win a fourth term consecutively if her party wins the elections but that is a very big if. There were successive corruption scandals attributed to her government from CWG scam to recent indictment by Lokayukta in a case related to misuse of power and public money combined with an image of weak governance in face of increasing crime against women make it lot harder for her.
However, what makes Delhi elections more interesting is the presence of a viable third alternative in AamAadmi Party (AAP). Elections which are multi-pronged with more than two parties vying for victory create an element of surprise and possible twist to the outcomes. Given the complex arithmetic involved due to various potential factors such as higher voter turnout, shift in traditional voting patterns etc., predicting the results is not easy. AamAadmi Party is the new kid in the block, yet it is giving the two major parties a run for their money and is challenging them effectively in many ways. From the plan to nominate only candidates with clean background and no criminal history to a novel way of drafting manifesto, where local residents of each constituency would contribute to document and the transparency in handling donations, all are trend-setting ideas in the murky world of Indian politics.
For instance, the recent order of the Central Information Commission for six national parties, including Congress, BJP and CPM, to implement the Right to Information Act in their organization has raised the political tempo among most parties. While all the six parties are united in rejecting the CIC order under some false pretenses, AAP, though not mandated, had voluntarily announced that they are open to RTI even before this ruling. The party has implemented a transparent process of handling all the donations to the party where the donors and their respective donations, be it 1 rupee or 1 lakh rupees, are published in their website, online donations appear instantly. No donations will be accepted from any donor who wishes to remain anonymous and expecting a quid-pro-quo, including large corporations. This has set a very high standard for any political party anywhere, not just in India.
Another interesting process is their candidate selection process: A prospective candidate with the approval of one hundred voters from his/her constituency can nominate oneself, following which a screening committee is formed to create a short list of a maximum of 5 candidates for each constituency from all the applications received. The screening committee would place this shortlist in public domain for everyone to provide feedback on these candidates. The screening committee would take cognizance of all feedback provided by public and upon receiving any negative information with evidence about a candidate, name of the candidates would be taken out of the shortlist.
Here is the most challenging yet path-breaking process: A debate will be conducted among the candidates to showcase their skills, ideology and commitment to the cause to the fellow party members, followed by a preferential voting by them. This will play an important part in the final decision to be made by the political action committee in choosing the party’s nominee. This idea is very similar to the concept of primary elections practiced in advanced democracies like US, UK and few other European nations.
The primary election model was created as part of a movement to democratize party nominations, and is quite popular in few countries, especially in the United States. The origins of primary elections are traced to the progressive movements that wanted to take the power of candidate nomination away from party leaders and give it to the people, there by diminishing the power of the party’s ‘high command’.
Primaries are conducted from the presidential elections to the elections for local bodies in the US. This method allows party members and loyalists to choose their preferred candidate to represent their party in the general election. There are two types of primaries: Closed and open primaries. The closed primary is one in which only registered party members may vote for their party’s nomination and is also the most commonly used method. On the other hand, an open primary does not require voters to be affiliated with a political party in order to vote for that party’s candidate nomination.
Role of primaries in a vibrant democracy cannot be overstated. Hillary Clinton might have been the president of the United States and not the charming, first African-American president Barack Obama, if it were not for the primaries. When Clinton announced her intentions to run for the president and to seek the Democratic Party’s nomination in 2007, a huge majority of the party leadership supported her candidature and it appeared her nomination was all but locked. It all changed so rapidly once Obama announced his candidature and the rest is history. It was Obama who the members of the party wanted to as their nominee and the party leaders had to bow to their wishes. This model pushes all potential candidates to understand and respect the wishes of all members of the party, not just of a few elite members whose hands can be greased or cajoled to get the nomination.
It is a welcome step that AAP has adopted this concept too. Though the members of the AamAadmi Party don’t have final say in the nominations, at least not yet, and their feedback is only one of the inputs into the decision-making process, it is indeed a great start for a new party to make such a big play in its first elections. The party should release the voting percentage for each candidates and the reason for selecting the nominee finally to keep up their mission of full transparency.
India desperately needs a democracy 2.0, which will fundamentally shake our political culture that is full of nepotism and graft, both within and outside our political system. These new experiments would put a tremendous pressure on major parties to clean up their act and raise their game or face the risk of new smaller parties, with similar or better ideas, nibble away at their support base.