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Bill Clinton speaks during a campaign event for wife Hillary Clinton, 2016 Democratic presidential candidate. The pendulum of power in the Oval Office and on Capitol Hill has always oscillated between the Democrats and Republicans. Photo: Bloomberg
Bill Clinton speaks during a campaign event for wife Hillary Clinton, 2016 Democratic presidential candidate. The pendulum of power in the Oval Office and on Capitol Hill has always oscillated between the Democrats and Republicans. Photo: Bloomberg

Lessons from the US Primaries

Given America's immensity, federal structure and regional variations, drawing comparative political analogies with it can yield more productive insights for Indian politics

American voters have begun the scramble to choose Democrat and Republican contenders for the presidential race later this year. Republican Ted Cruz’s victory in the Iowa caucus marks the onset of a heavily scrutinized and frenzied process. The outcome of their choices in public caucuses and secret ballot primaries will set the stage for a heavyweight political bout of immense significance. But importantly, the process through which their decisions are made also deserves vital attention.

In India, trends in the British political landscape are often followed with interest. However, given America’s sheer immensity, its federal structure, sharp regional variations and diversity, drawing comparative political analogies with it can yield more productive insights.

Two aspects of the US nomination cycle offer a revealing contrast with the Indian polity. The binary nature of political alignment in America is one of them. The pendulum of power in the Oval Office and on Capitol Hill has always oscillated between the Democrats and Republicans. Attempts by candidates outside this periphery—such as Ross Perot’s presidential bid in 1992—have fared miserably, highlighting the firm hold of two-party politics in America.

Notwithstanding the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s current parliamentary majority at the centre, broad developments in India’s electoral cycles spanning at least the past two decades point to the emergence of regional parties as a crucial influence. Neither the Congress nor the BJP can lay a confident claim to political dominance without having some regional allies with them. Both parties with lofty pan-Indian ambitions have to depend on whimsical allies in a volatile political supermarket.

The other noteworthy feature of the nomination process in America is the fact that state-level politicians have also been able to make a case to become their party’s presidential candidate alongside insiders from Washington. Several former US presidents have also emerged through this well-trodden route. Ronald Reagan acquired experience as governor in California, Bill Clinton in Arkansas and George W. Bush in Texas.

In marked contrast, in India forging a successful career in regional politics and at the centre is somehow seen as a mutually exclusive proposition. But it need not necessarily be the case, as Narendra Modi has shown. If anything, a stint in a relatively competent state administration can provide the ideal preparatory foundation for greater responsibility at the Centre.

What explains this? A critical factor has been the reluctance of the two main parties to hold a genuine leadership contest when an opportunity has arisen and in which ordinary party members have a say. The comparative success of their American counterparts owes much to paying due regard to institutional processes and not just institutional outcomes. By allowing grassroots members to elect their leadership, prospective Republican and Democrat candidates are forced to step outside their comfort zone and the membership remains interested in the party.

On the other hand, the constant push for old-fashioned ‘command and control’ structures in India has led to centralized decision making within narrow cliques. That doesn’t lend itself to transparency. The US primaries provide a salutary lesson in the virtue of giving the grassroots membership an active stake in the party. Both the Congress and the BJP desperately need to embrace this philosophy beyond mere tokenism. Persisting with the status quo of imposing decisions at the behest of a narrow coterie can only lead to more time on the opposition benches.

Rishabh Bhandari is a lawyer and commentator based in London. He writes on subjects that include British and Indian social, political and economic affairs.

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