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Devangshu Datta: Primary principles

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One attractive aspect of the is the long, high-decibel run-up to that first Tuesday in November. The world can sit back and enjoy the circus as the US parties nominate candidates. If the incumbent president can run for re-election, the fun is unfortunately halved.

Nevertheless, 2012 has already provided much grist to the entertainment mill. One can hope that it’ll get even better with eight months to go. We await more relentless exposes of both the personal lives and political predilections of candidates.

Republicans have a delightful smorgasbord of choices, despite the dropout of non-serious players, like the hotelier whose political experience consisted of fending off sexual harassment charges. The elephants can opt for a “flip-flopper” whose wife supports the US auto industry by driving two Cadillacs. Or they can back a financial ideologue who wants a libertarian government. They also have the option of going with a long-term hack with a shady personal and political record. Finally, if the reds really want “that old-time religion”, they can choose a nut — whose name is a neologism for a disgusting colloidal mixture.

Unfortunately, India with its supposedly vibrant multi-party set-up doesn’t have anything to match this quadrennial circus. Superficially, this may seem like a good thing. Actually, the absence highlights at least two major flaws in desi politics.

Indians are far too respectful of the personal space and private affairs of netas. We’ve elected liars, lechers, murderers, drunkards, bribe-takers, and, arguably, lunatics galore. We’ve elected entire families of flawed human beings. By steering clear of the discussion of personal peccadilloes in our public discourse, we’ve enabled a culture of sanctimonious hypocrisy and allowed the massive misuse of public resources.

Whatever the personal inclinations of American politicians, the relentless focus on their private lives forces circumspection. Less respect for personal space and more airing of dirty linen in public would be a very healthy development in the Indian political space.

The other glaring flaw the US nomination process highlights is that Indian parties possess zero internal democracy. The ticket to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue isn’t handed out by a self-appointed committee of “elders”; it has to be won in open internal elections where candidates freely dish the dirt on each other.

Nomination processes in the US may be risible and, undoubtedly, so are many candidates. But stripped off the hoopla, these internal party elections encourage mass participation. Any American who wishes to, can register as or Democrat, and vote for the individual he or she wants as a candidate.

This is unthinkable in India. While most Indian political parties do allow citizens at large to apply for membership, elections to party posts are a sham when held at all. Weasel words like “consensus” are used to disguise the lack of democracy in “choosing” party leaders. Tickets are handed out as largesse by the boss and his or her pet cronies.

Back-stabbing is normal in all political parties. But there is no normal way for a dissenter in an Indian party to unseat incumbents via internal party elections. This also retards any chances of policy reform from within a party, because publicly disagreeing with the leader’s ideology will lead to expulsion. Or, at best, defection and the formation of a new party.

Would America have a healthier policy environment with more parties? Probably. The divide between Republican and is now so deep that sensible policy is liable to be shot down sight-unseen by the opposite camp. If there were more centrist parties or even credible independent candidates, that gap might be bridged.

Would India have a healthier policy environment if political parties had credible internal elections? Undoubtedly. It would guarantee the dishing of more political dirt and it could lead to from within the establishment.

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