A dab of primary colors in India's 'Americanized' election

The Congress Party held its first ever primaries to select candidates in 15 constituencies, while the opposition party is promoting its leader in a presidential-style campaign.

Ajit Solanki/AP
Supporters of India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) carry a cut-out of the party's symbol with a portrait of their prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi during a rally in Vadodara, India, Wednesday, April 9, 2014.

Last month, members of India’s ruling Congress Party did something unprecedented: They voted in a primary in their parliamentary constituencies.

Primaries are an integral part of US politics. But in India, where party leaders usually pick candidates and a constituency seat is often passed from father to son, primaries are a novel experiment – and one of several American elements spicing up this year’s election season. Voting for the 545-member national parliament began Monday and runs through May 12.

These US-style imports include fundraising dinners, aggressive social media and online marketing, and a distinctly presidential slant to the promotion of the opposition’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. India’s actual president, a largely ceremonial role, is chosen via an electoral college. 

Indian political parties rarely anoint their prime ministerial candidates in advance of elections. Yet Mr. Modi’s face dominates the Bharatiya Janata Party’s banners – often to the exclusion of other senior leaders, stirring internal grumbling.

Last month the party changed its slogan from “Abki bar, BJP sarkar” ("This time, the BJP government") to “Abki bar, Modi sarkar” ("This time, Modi’s government"). And similar to an American presidential candidate, Modi has his own back-office campaign team.

“This is the first time that you see an entire campaign of a political party centered on one leader, which even some party leaders are uncomfortable with,” says Sanjay Kumar, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. “The election has become almost a referendum: either you want Modi or don’t want Modi.”

Personalized campaign

Many point out that the Congress’s Gandhi family has previously spawned quasi-presidential leaders – including Indira Gandhi, who served as prime minister between 1966 and 1977 and again from 1980 to 1984. Voters at the time had no doubt that she would be the prime minister in the event of a Congress victory at the polls. But “even at the peak of Indira Gandhi’s regime, the political campaign was not so personalized,” Mr. Kumar says.

Behind the promotion of Modi as leader-in-waiting is the rise of media-driven campaigns. Mass media political marketing has been increasing since the early 1990s and tracks the explosion of foreign and private TV channels. This election has seen parties borrowing from the 2008 US presidential campaign in their use of social media including Facebook, Twitter, and Google Hangouts to connect with younger voters.

The idea that media campaigns can persuade Indian voters or influence the outcome of an election is influenced by the US model, says Arvind Rajagopal, professor of media studies at New York University, in an email interview.

But the jury is still out. In 2004, the then-ruling BJP ran for reelection on an "India Shining" ad blitz to promote their achievements – and was soundly defeated at the polls. 

"This election will reveal how influential social media, and indeed the unprecedented media blitz, can be,” says Mr. Rajagopal. 

Confessional party politics

Rajagopal, who has written extensively on Indian media and politics, sees a larger shift in Indian politics toward an American party model, in which parties are "confessional" and mostly reflect or express the ideological convictions of their constituents. In India, parties are also populist and "clientelist" – routinely exchanging concrete benefits for political support. 

A shift toward an American party model is bad news for the Congress Party, he adds, “since it is patently a big tent rather than a confessional party.”

If presidential politics and lavish media campaigns are viewed with some disfavor here, the experiment with party primaries and fundraisers may get more traction. India’s newest party, the AAP, hosted a dinner in Bangalore last month for 250 people at $320 a plate. The names of donors were also published in keeping with the party’s stated commitment to transparency in election funding.

The primaries represent an attempt by the Congress vice president, Rahul Gandhi, to promote greater internal democracy in a party seen as dynastic, not least when it comes to his own family. A small group of party workers and members were recently asked to choose their parliamentary candidate in 15 constituencies. 

Despite Mr. Gandhi’s intentions, the primaries didn’t all go smoothly – some party leaders initially refused to take part, and in Vadodara, a city in western India, the winner of the Congress primary was replaced with a senior leader once Modi announced that he was standing there.

Level playing field

Even in some of the other contests, the process wasn’t as democratic as the candidates would have liked. Rajeev Gowda, an academic and politician who stood in a four-way primary in North Bangalore, came away bruised. While a relative newcomer to electoral politics, Mr. Gowda was a strong candidate on paper: He teaches at Bangalore's elite Indian Institute of Management, serves as a state spokesman for the party, and comes from a political family. 

He also has a track record of civic activism. “I took it seriously, put in the work in the constituency,” he said, “so the results were a major let down.”

Gowda placed second by a large margin – unfairly, he suggests. Many party voters told him they had to follow the instructions of the local party bigwigs. “What the newspapers said about the primaries is that the high command [in Delhi] gets replaces by the low command [local powers],” he says. “For someone like me who was expecting a level playing field, that expectation did not turn out to be realistic.”

Still, Gowda reckons primaries can open the way for new talent. For now, most candidates are backed by local party bosses, so newcomers face long odds. “But in a couple more rounds, people might exercise their own choice.”

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