Do Indian voters really choose?

December 8, 2008

Rahul Gandhi spoke at a news conference in Amritsar last month. Somewhat predictably newspapers and TV channels covering the event focused on his comments on the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 and his defense against being called a rookie by a seasoned political rival.

They ignored the context of his visit — to review preparations for the local youth Congress elections, being conducted with greater involvement of party workers at the grass-roots level. It’s a practice he apparently wants to replicate across other states.

If Gandhi is serious about it and succeeds in doing so, it will further the cause of internal party democracy, which is a major blind spot in the working of our democracy.

The expression ‘political party’ did not even enter the Indian Constitution for the first thirty-five years of its life and even afterwards it did so cursorily in a Schedule.

The Constitution ensures that we elect our representatives but does not specify how political parties should choose the candidates — it’s a decision that does not involve citizens.

For me, the most fascinating aspect of the the 2008 U.S. presidential elections, even more than the final outcome, was the manner in which candidates are chosen.

Constant and intense interaction between the potential candidates and the party members brings out with a degree of clarity the political agenda of the candidates who in turn get a chance to tweak them to the expectations of voters.

This brings more transparency in the political domain. If a candidate loses or wins in those conditions then one knows the reasons for it.

If there were more internal democracy India’s pre-election opinion polls would probably be more accurate.

The result of the state elections as well as the general elections in 2009 would also make more sense.

Ashutosh Varshney, writing in the Times of India, mentions the lack of intra-party democracy as a major reason why India may not produce a Barack Obama.

He argues that lack of internal elections means that “rank outsiders like Mayawati, tend to create new political parties, but it is well known that it is much harder to create a new nationwide political organization than use an existing one.”

This reduces the probability of a candidate like Obama coming to power in India.

I find it a bit ironical that Varshney writes about the importance of internal party democracy in the same issue of the paper that also covers Rahul Gandhi’s Amritsar news conference but overlooks his initiative towards firming up the election process.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes in Outlook magazine that “most political parties do not institutionalise internal party reform because it could jeopardise the hold of current party incumbents.”

Given that, I think such a step by any politician needs to be appreciated for its boldness. It also needs to be followed up and scrutinised.

If the media focuses more on this lacuna of Indian democracy perhaps it will help put the issue on the common agenda and make the elections more meaningful.

After all there is something called the ‘observer effect’ which causes a change by the very act of looking at something. 

The question is how soon will the media start focusing on the selection process that precedes the elections.


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Inner party democracy is quite an oxymoron in this country. I wonder if Rahul Gandhi will insist on a proper party poll for even posts he’s nominated for. I will wait till that day before I become a convert.

Posted by Madhu | Report as abusive

parties using internally democratic procedures are more likely to choose capable and appealing leaders.Their policies will be more responsive and as a result they can enjoy greater electoral success.i think it will promote a virtuous circle.Using these procedures will strenghten democratic culture generally.

Posted by nikhil dogra | Report as abusive

inner party democracy is good, but more important is the qualifications and background necessary for all those who intend being professional politicians. Who decides this ? We now have criminals as MP’s.. what of these ?

Posted by Busybee | Report as abusive

Inner party democracy arises out of need. In US, people have a strong say in who are the candidates and who end up forming the government. In India, it is not so. There is no need to project a leader before the election and is selected by a select group of people – the elected representatives and the party hierarchy. It is a process of selection, rather than election. So, there is no need, in essence, for inner party democracy.

Posted by Arby K | Report as abusive

“In US, people have a strong say in who are the candidates and who end up forming the government.”

Yeah, you guys really had a huge list of candidates for president post. I am surprised it didn’t leak out and flooded some state. Then again, you people elect someone like Bush into power over and over, so compared to THAT, we Indians have way better and sane people taking up important posts esp. in the centre.

Besides, I am from Delhi, there aren’t any criminals with power here. Bribe taking officials exist in every country, we can live with that.

Posted by Nikhil | Report as abusive

Good point raised..
I wonder if this internal politics would lead to Mayawati becoming our PM one day!!!

Posted by Aditya | Report as abusive

@ Nikhil, since u qouted me in ur comment, I was just saying it should be left to the citizenry to decide who should be elected, rather than party bureaucrats.

Posted by Arby K | Report as abusive

I agree with the author that so far media has not been able to make ‘observer effect’ visible enough in terms of pre-election scenario. Just analyzing the polls is not what media is supposed to do. I believe, time has come for Indian media to take note of such initiatives and help setting up a grand debate on internal democracy, which certainly lies at the core of a true democracy.

Posted by Rahul Mishra | Report as abusive

Rahul baba’s discovery that his family name would not save the party and the country is certainly not belated, but given his imbecility, he hasn’t been able to follow that line of thought to the logical end.

His thoughts on revitalising the Youth Congress and the National Students’ Union of India and bringing fresh blood into the ossified Congress party has the trappings of a man so untouched by the country he lives in. Rahul baba’s idea was to run the IYC like a CEO, getting prospective candidates to send in CVs and make fancy power-point presentations.

For that matter, the only parties which have some semblance of inner-party democracy are the Bhartiya Janata Party and the assorted parliamentary leftists.

Re Ashurosh Varshney, his argument on how rank outsiders create new parties is thorough rubbish, and reflects the elitist blinkered view which till now was visible only in journalists.
Mayawati did not create the Bahujan Samaj Party, and Kanshi Ram, who did do it, was definitely not a rank-outsider when he set up the party.

I am unaware of any rank outsider creating any party worth the name. India, where the transistion from community to induvidual is still an ongoing process, does not accept faces, it accepts ascriptive charecteristics. And this is not from a primodial instinct that makes them communal, but because of a very rational view on the utlisation of the vote.

The plaint that India does not have an Obama too is one that can come from the upper classes who would have this country ruled by oligocrats and would have abolish the democratic system that makes a street-hawker their equal in the political process.

Much of this class has no use for history, so it would be unware of the socialist movement, which was the political emergence of the middle and lower castes. They might know Mayawati, but she is not as sexy as Obama, is she? They would neglect the most important political emergence since Nehru, and moan and wait for that elusive Obama.

Posted by Cheri | Report as abusive

on Rahul Gandhi’s efforts: we dont know how far he will go with the democratisation process but if we as media focus on it that might build some pressure not only on the Congress but other parties as well.

On Ashutosh Varshney’s stand: I think what he meant was that in the absence of inner party democracy a person with a fresh idea/ideology cannot hope to capture an existing political party like the extremists did from the moderates in 1905.Or what Gandhi (the original one) did in 1920.I dont see how that is elitist. Varshney’s argument is quite the opposite.If there were intra party democracy probably we would have less splintered a polity since more leaders would get to express and canvass their views. It would also speed up social and political change by saving on time and resources spent on setting up a new political party. That will help those political leaders who dont have acess to money and muscle power.
And by this logic leaders like Kanshiram, NT Rama Rao etc. could be called outsiders to the Congress party system.

On India not having an Obama yet: If there was inner party democracy probably Mayawati or someone of similar persuasion would be heading the union government now rather than being confined to the most populous state in the country.Perhaps she has a message which is national in appeal but she is handicapped by not having a national political machine at her disposal.
And just because the elite are rooting for an Indian Obama doesnot make the plaint/expectation elitist.

On Mayawati as the most important political emergence since Nehru:Well I dont know about you but historians generally would err on the side of caution before saying anything definitive.I would like to wait and watch.

And dear Busybee:
Inner party democracy is perhaps the crucial step to ensuring that wee qualified people get to occupy political posts of consequence.It is a means to an end.

Posted by Vipul Tripathi | Report as abusive

We can not think of a vibrant, sound and effective democracy in the absence of inner party democracy. It needs regular elections at all levels of the party hierarchy which is completely absent in India. We need a constitutional amendment to make it mandatory for all the political parties to adopt inner party democracy.

Posted by arun tripathi | Report as abusive

The rise of new faces in India ensues from a social churning, not from churn within parties. It was the political rise of the backward castes and the sharpening of student politics that fanned the JP movement, and it was this that gave birth and catapulted the sundry Janata and post-Janata politicans, the second rung Bhartiya Janata Party, and for that matter, the
now-not-so-young turks of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Now, when I say “new faces,” I do not mean old ideas in new masks. I mean it in a progressive sense. For instance, one could play safely play ingy-pingy-pongy between Rahul Gandhi and the crop of new faces in the Congress, and this is precisely because the Congress is no longer a movement but a party entrenched in the system.

One could indeed argue on whether it needs to be a movement, once the goal of independence was achieved. But the Indian nation — for whatever it is worth — has still a long way to transition between the formal citizenship promised by the constitution and
the substantiative citizenship that is the goal of liberal democracy.

A party operating within the Indian system cannot but go along with the dominant idea of India — which sprigs from the ruling coalition of feudal landholders and a bourgeoise who have falied in their historic role.

Witness the near-consensus (in practice, at least) of the model of capitalistic development which even shuns the Keynesian and the liberal models of Europe. Witness the lack of land reforms, practically the only element of the Bombay plan Nehurvian socialism slept on.

Thus, for Mayawati to emerge in the political sphere, Kanshi Ram had to build his movement, travelling among the dalit bastis in bycyles, weaving networks of dalit-bahujan government employess. In other words, the rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party was no miracle, it was a movement that was ignored by the Indian media and the chattering classes.

And this is why new faces without familiar surnames cannot emerge in Indian political parties.

Posted by Cheri | Report as abusive


On social churning:The point regarding emergence of new faces through social movements is taken.If we institutionalise intra party democracy the change would be smoother.

On the dominant idea of India:I don’t want to go into pat characterisations of Indian Polity so I will pass up this one.

As for the historical role of the bourgeoise :I think the comment is teleological and i can’t prove or disprove it. In fact no one can.That is the convenience of posting it.

On BSP being ignored:Every movement is ignored in its initial stages. So was perhaps the BSP.But we come a full circle with htis comment because the blog was, to begin with, on the role of the media.May be if the media had paid more attention the BSP would have imbibed a more democratic ethos.

Posted by Vipul Tripathi | Report as abusive

Great to hear someone like Rahul Gandhi talking about intra party democracy. Hope this is not just lip service. Reform in this direction is definitely the need of the hour.

Posted by Lali | Report as abusive

The BSP was ignored because it was a dalit movement and the Indian media has its upper caste/class biases. Look no further than the hype created and the plugging done at the creation of the rag-tag Lok Pariytrayan, just because of its social profile and its association with the hallowed IIT/IIMs.
That also highlights another point: the media, much like Dickens’ law, is an ass. The “if the media had paid more attention (to) the BSP,” is contrafactual as it the media WOULD not have paid attention to the early BSP, much as it did not to the DS4 or the BAMCEF, because its fundamental inability to do so.
The media is also a paper tiger, and like paper sways the way the wind blows. Look no further at the war-mongering following the Mumbai attacks, with no understanding of the costs of a nuclear war.
To expect social change from an ill-informed media is
foolish, and I would submit, very dangerous.

Posted by Cheri | Report as abusive

I don’t think you can tar all the media with the same brush.

There have been supposedly right wing newspapers giving space to dalit diaries.Even issues edited by dalit intellectuals.

The media has overall been diverse in content and views though it could definitely do more.

Let me leave you with a thought.
From Omar Khayyam:

“Myself when young did in earnest frequent doctor and saint/
and heard great argument/
About it and about and ever more/
Yet came out of the same door as in I went.”

Posted by Vipul Tripathi | Report as abusive

If you mean that political parties should replicate the same democracy structures that exists in the country then you probably need to think deeper on the consequences.

Did our democracy choose correct people most of the time? No. Was Indira Gandhi a perfect choice for a PM among her contemporaries? No. Was Nehru? May be. Was Rajiv Gandhi good choice for a PM if you consider his contemporaries? No. We have treated that family as our royal family every time we were asked to choose between a “royal” Gandhi and a non-royal non-Gandhi (well, some times no, but not every time an emergency is declared).

Given current political environment if inner party democracies are a reality then we would see coalition forming for the candidacy.

US of A may have some inner party democracy but that did not stop them from electing Nixon or two generations of Bush.

Let us face it, if our common people are a bit more serious and learned about making their choices about the candidates we would not have gotten where we are today. And that should be the true motive of our democracy: A skilled and learned man selected by a learned mass. Alas, I would not see such a thing in my life time.

Posted by sid | Report as abusive

@Sid, only a very elitist view can prompt a comment that India’s “common people” are not serious about that vote and waste their franchise. That is the habit of the beautiful people of India, whose idea of political engagement will not and cannot go beyond inane statements on television and candle holding jamborees.
Democracy has one inherent virtue that makes it superior to any other political system: it allows the recall of any leader at the end of five years. The Indian electorate has used this strength. As a framework for understanding this, but the rather lazy and sloppy term “anti-incumbency” should suffice here.
Rahul Gandhi and his sister and his mother could not stem the rot in the Congress. Rather, baba’s campaigning lost a few seats in the last legislative assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. Evidence contrary to the assertion the Indian common man treats the Gandhi family as a royal family.
So yes, democracy may not choose the best leader, but it certainly lets you boot out a bad one !
The idea of democracy is to represent the people of the political system in the widest possible manner. That is what I have meant in my comments. This is not a threat, but a stabilising measure. The ground for insurgencies is in the lack of voice that marginalised groups have. If the political system ignores sections of society, one is potentially staring at civil war.

Posted by Cheri | Report as abusive

There seems to be a class of self-proclaimed thought-leaders in India, discarding the fact that there still is political intellectualism in the country. In such absence, which is what seems to be suggested here, two situations could have been:
1) Either we are a group of uncaring citizens, who’ve let ourselves be governed by a pot midgets unworthy of being even in a circus?
2) We have a political setup which looks around itself to find candidates of worthy causes, and fails to find anyone better than a charged criminal?

We are so quick to blame, not quick enough to accept a blame. Media should first inter-investigate it’s role in the dislocation of our democratic process. The feeling is – media covers what sells. So Cheri may be right in saying the media’s paper flows in the direction in which the wind is strongest. We are likely to witness a revolution in the role of media in democratization of India politics, only, once ad-revenues may be set aside in favor of a greater role of being the voice of the nation.

Posted by Kabeer Shrivastava | Report as abusive

On the point of democracy within political parties, I can comment first hand, that there is a lack of courage within the political establishment within the country to go down that road. Reason is simple: much above the party, electorates identify far greater with the candidate. In most cases, parties are not willing to take the risk of stepping over a winning-candidate in favor of a democratic process. This again brings me back to question all, how do we as people really see democracy within the country?

The point of Obamaisation is completely bogus. First, in India there is no constitutional provision to elect one man to a top job through direct election. Second, even if there were such a provision, it would be completely absurd for a nation of 100-crore (over 40% illiterate, most without TV etc) to know who the best person to vote for amongst 2-3 candidates. Therefore, it only makes sense in our present scope of social fabric to have people elect parliamentarians who in turn choose their leader to be the Prime Minister of the country.

Posted by Kabeer | Report as abusive

Cheri’s erudite comments are confusing me, but I’d like to point out that there are no movements in India. A movement, I believe, should be beyond the all-consuming system, but will have to work to get reforms into that same system.

BSP is not a movement any longer. In fact, I don’t think it was ever a movement. It was, as usual, an attempt to set up something different, which soon became embroiled in the same mess as the others.

And I think elite bashing is so cliched. That Mayawati, the saviour of dalits, drips diamonds doesn’t seem to upset the same people who take digs at the elite Rahul Gandhi.

Posted by Sayantani | Report as abusive

I agree with Sayantani.
A sound polity is not based on individuals a la Rahul Gandhi or Mayawati. It is based on sound structures like intra party democracy for one.
Every movement or party should be judged by the same standards. High standards in public and political life cannot be dubbed elitist.That is an elitism everyone should aspire to and expect from others.

Posted by Vipul Tripathi | Report as abusive

it is the great opportunity that we got to select the people who is going to rule us.People are really interested to select their ruler.But unfortunately present UPA govt. Is giving main ministry posts to the purchasable members.
Including the post of PRIME minister .
IN that case no need to be proud of being an democratic country citizen.
Because of such action people(specially younger generations) are not at all showing interest

Posted by sunil | Report as abusive

Recent case in IL about selecting governer shows there are flaws in democracy of every nation. No need to compare our election system with US. Atleast when I was there they showed much respect to our democracy.
It depends on peoples and not parties who produces leaders or candidates. In UP, Bihar we vote for all time criminals who are capable of winning the seat from jail.
In South we respect actors rather than social workers. In west bengol I dont know where we are heading same party ruling them but things are in same place where they were at time of independance.
We allways vote for parties and not peoples and thats where we fail.

Posted by Sachin | Report as abusive