An unusual political discourse is underway amongst Congress workers in Madhya Pradesh’s Mandsaur district, known for opium farming and surrounded on three sides by Rajasthan.
The inclusion of Mandsaur in the list of 16 Lok Sabha constituencies shortlisted for the Indian National Congress’s primary elections, has sent the people here into a tizzy.
The party, under the initiative of vice-president Rahul Gandhi, recently announced that it would introduce American-style primary elections, where office bearers will directly choose the candidates for their constituencies.
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If the exercise succeeds, it will be replicated across the country in future elections.
It has been announced that primary elections will be held in Mandsaur on March 3. But state and district level party functionaries are still unsure about details such as the eligibility of voters and how to get enlisted as a voter for primary elections.
Conversations with Congress members in the constituency reveal an irony: As far as ideas go, primary elections are right up there with the best ones and will bring in an element of transparency and credibility to the process of candidate selection for the Lok Sabha polls. But not everyone is sure whether the central leadership, which announced it to begin with, will take the primaries seriously.
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Shambhu Lal Chauhan, 60, vice president of Mandsaur block Congress (rural) and a retired schoolteacher says that for the first time in his 30-year-long relationship with the party he feels a sense of belonging. “We are small people. Our views never reach Delhi as all discussions regarding crucial decisions are controlled by state and central leadership. I hope that this exercise changes things for the better,” he says.
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Chauhan points out another merit in the process. “For months after elections, various factions within the party keep sulking that candidates of their choice were not given tickets. With the primaries, such feelings of disgruntlement will come to an end,” he says.
Sunil Gupta, 35, secretary of the district Congress committee, Mandsaur, and one of the youngest active party workers in the region, believes the primaries will bring Parliamentarians in direct contact with the local cadre.
“The real campaigning for an MP in the constituency is done by grassroot workers. If the worker is happy with the MP, he will go out of his way to work for him. But if the MP has failed to take the cadre along, no one can save him,” he says, adding, “When a sitting MP is told that his fate lies in the hands of workers, he will be bound to listen to their grievances.”
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A representative cross section of party workers, leaders and other influential people from will decide the Congress candidate for their Lok Sabha constituencies by participating in the voting. A party member or a person of standing in public service satisfying the required criteria will be accepted as a candidate for these elections.
Traditionally, the District Congress Committee recommends names of candidates to the Pradesh Election Committee. A screening committee then sends a list of shortlisted candidates to the Central Election Committee presided over by Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
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Congress functionaries in Neemuch, 55km north of Mandsaur district, and Jaora, which is 50km to the south, are also divided in their reactions. Everyone is in favour of the primaries as they expect them to make party members — from the block level right up to the state — stakeholders in ticket distribution for the 2014 general election.
But there is also a lurking fear among many that the exercise may just end up being an eyewash. “This will end the hegemony of a handful of leaders. They will realise that they cannot take things for granted,” says Anil Sancheti, secretary, Madhya Pradesh Congress Committee. Arun Yadav, Madhya Pradesh Congress chief and MP from Khandwa says that he is “more than happy to offer my seat for the primaries.”
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Meenakshi Natarajan, a close aide of Rahul Gandhi, is the sitting MP from Mandsaur. Before voters elected her to Parliament in 2009, the Congress party had lost the seat to the BJP in six consecutive elections. The tally of the latest assembly election in Mandsaur indicates that the Congress is on slippery ground yet again.
The party lost seven out of eight assembly seats. Party workers blame both senior leaders and Natarajan for flawed ticket distribution, which, they believe, led to the defeat. This is the backdrop against which Mandsaur will go to the primaries, or, as party workers here call them, the ‘pre- poll’ or ‘survey’.
Whatever the murmurings, few are keen to take on a candidate who is close to Rahul Gandhi. The question on everyone’s mind is: Who will challenge Meenakshi Natarajan in the primaries? “It will be political suicide,” says Hargovind Diwan, president, Assembly Youth Congress, Neemuch (city). “If Natarajan is a contender, no one stands a chance against her. Also, the person who stands against her will be seen as a rebel in the party,” he says.
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Nand Kishore Patel, district Congress president, Neemuch, agrees. “I don’t think she will face any competition,” he says.
That the Mandsaur seat is up for the primaries at all has also led to speculation about Natarajan’s political strategy. A faction believes that, foreseeing her defeat in the general election, Natarajan is using the primaries to avoid facing another election from the constituency. “She can fight from wherever she wants.
Why has she offered her seat for this experiment?” wonders Sancheti. “It defies logic,” he says, when told that the primaries will also be conducted in the constituencies of Ajay Maken and JP Agarwal in Delhi, both Congress stalwarts.
The two seats in the national capital are replacements for Chandi Chowk, represented by Kapil Sibal and North-West Delhi, the constituency of Krishna Tirath. Both constituencies were reportedly dropped from the original list of 16 after Sibal and Tirath opposed the move.
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Surendra Sethi, former district Congress President, Neemuch, clearly not a Natarajan supporter, smells a conspiracy. He shows this reporter a column he wrote for ‘Maalwa Aaj Tak’, a local Hindi daily: “Days before Rahul Gandhi first spoke about the primaries at a public forum in the capital, Natarajan mentioned it to party workers in Mandsaur.
Did she do it to create an atmosphere in her favour or because she does not want to contest this time?” He suggests that the strength of non-party members in the electoral college be increased to make the primaries a genuine exercise. “Party members who will form the electoral college are appointed or recommended by the sitting MP. Why would they vote against her?” he asks, adding that the party should ensure that a substantial number of people participate in voting.
Meanwhile, Natarajan has played down her clout. “If you wish to encourage healthy competition within the party, everyone should be challenged. Divergent opinions are good for democracy,” she says. “I offered my seat for the pilot project but whether it was selected because I offered it or because the party wanted it in the list is something I don’t know.”
The general feeling is that if Natarajan contests, she will face no competition. But that does not stop party members from contemplating their preferences. “Former MLA Mahendra Singh Kalukheda will be the second preference” for Bhanupratap Singh, president, NSUI, Neemuch. Asha Sambar, president of the Congress Mahila Dal believes Dr Sampaswaroop Jaju, also a former legislator, should be given a chance.
Elsewhere, in Manasa, on the outskirts of Mandsaur, Balkavi Bairaagi, 83, former MP and a Congress veteran, laughs at the idea of primaries. “It is a mere formality to make party workers believe they will have a say in crucial decisions,” he says. “In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress gives tickets to loyalists of leaders like Digjivaya Singh, Kamal Nath and Jyotiraditya Scindia.
Please tell Rahul Gandhi that if he wants this to be an impartial process, he should first diffuse these fan clubs!” Consulting party members at the grassroot level is a step towards inner party democracy, but so ingrained is the high-command culture that the initiative is being greeted with some mistrust.
Cong goes the AAP way?
Ever since January 17 when Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi spoke of introducing primary elections in 16 Lok Sabha constituencies to open up the selection process for the party’s candidates for the 2014 general elections, the initiative has been compared with the primary elections conducted in America and the candidate selection process adopted by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) for the Delhi assembly polls in December, 2013.
Prakash Joshi, AICC secretary and in-charge of the primaries pilot project denies that the Congress primaries are inspired by the AAP model. “We began internal elections in the Indian Youth Congress and the National Students Union of India in 2008. That was before the AAP came into existence,” he says.
To get an AAP ticket for Delhi assembly elections, applicants had to submit application forms with the signatures of 100 supporters. A screening committee had then shortlisted applicants by interviewing them and the list had been posted on the party’s wesite for feedback. Shortlisted candidates presented their vision before active volunteers of the party, after which the volunteers had given their preferences for the assembly candidates from their constituencies through voting. The political affairs committee had been the final authority in the selection process.
“At that time, we did not have a database of active volunteers. Many people had said they had wanted to participate in voting but we were not sure if they were our volunteers,” recalls Dilip Pandey, AAP leader, speaking of the challenges the party faced in implementing the process.
In the US, parties conduct primaries to select candidates for local and presidential elections.