Imagine an election pitting Narendra Modi, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Nitish Kumar and Nitin Gadkari. Or an election pitting Rahul Gandhi, Sheila Dikshit, Pranab Mukherjee, Jairam Ramesh, and even Manmohan Singh. The election would be a primary within the party to select the party’s prime ministerial candidate.

The US, as anyone who watches CNN for a minute, is holding its primaries right now. Barack Obama is running uncontested in the Democratic primaries, but the Republicans are hosting a whale of a party in selecting its candidate. At first glance it may seem the most ridiculous thing—hold an election for nine months, beat up your eventual candidate and spend untold godly sums of money doing it. But a closer look reveals the beauty of a primary.

Candidates are vetted, tested and hazed; primaries can be an example of what doesn’t kill you does make you stronger. A candidate who goes through and wins a presidential (or prime ministerial) primary election process, campaigns across a nation. Voters become familiar with a candidate as he or she enters their living room on a nightly basis. Candidates, even the most robotic ones, become humanized as they make mistakes and show bursts of emotion. In smaller settings, unknown candidates can emerge. Hence, a Barack Obama can rise from being a first time senator to becoming a president.

Beyond candidates, different wings of the party get to test their strength. Last week in Iowa, it was hard to imagine that roughly one-third of the people who voted for Rick Santorum, a social conservative; Ron Paul, a libertarian; and Mitt Romney, an old school free market man, belong to the same party. But they do. Parties are not uniform. As much as parties have ideological differences between them, they have ideological differences within themselves as well. Parties benefit from an airing of ideas. Giving voice to people allows them to be part of the process. They may not win, but they are given a chance to voice.

And somehow the candidates who fight viciously throughout the primary are able to forgive the transgressions of the fight and move on. Like a healthy couple who let it all out once in a while, the candidates make up at the end. Given the name calling and dirtiness of the campaign, no one would have believed that Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden would be part of Obama’s administration during the 2008 primary, yet they are.

Now, in India, think how the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or more broadly the National Democratic Alliance, could benefit from a primary election. Primary elections could be held in each state capital open to upstanding party members. Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi could showcase the Bihar and Gujarat development models. Voters could decide if they want more Hindutva or less. Similar to many right-centre parties, voters could make the decision as to whether economics or social issues are more important.

In the Congress, instead of anointing a leader, it could have a true internal election. Scion versus scion; Rahul Gandhi versus Murli Deora versus Sachin Pilot versus Jyotiraditya Scindia. Add in the elders of the party and let the games began. Centre-left parties around the world grapple with how big a social safety net they espouse and how much of a free market is good for a country.

The British, who have a parliamentary system close to ours, also have a real election among themselves to decide their party leaders. The Labour Party just held an election where Ed Miliband beat his brother David to become leader of the Labour Party. David and Ed represented two different wings of the party and fought a vigorous election campaign. There is no reason that the BJP or the Congress couldn’t do the same.

A primary election would energize a political party through the internal campaign. A party bold enough to institute such an election would have its leaders on TV and in newspapers for a sustained period. The party and its chosen leader would benefit from the publicity and the testing of ideas. And there is nothing that Parliament needs to do for this to happen, all it needs is the will of one political party to make it happen.

Prashant Agrawal, a principal at a management consultancy, writes on public policy issues in India and internationally.

Your comments are welcome at summaryjudgement@livemint.com

Close