Selection of Party Candidates: USA, Canada and Bihar

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"May you live in interesting times," is widely attributed to a Chinese curse. But, this is so deliciously true in the case of many of us who are watching simultaneously elections in progress in three places over two continents: Bihar (in the Indian subcontinent), Canada and the United States (in North America).

Bihar is going to elect a new provincial legislature in October-November that will give a new administration under the Chief Minister. Canada is going to national polls on October the 19th when the country will vote on whether to give the Conservative Party Prime Minister Stephen Harper a third term. The United States is going through a protracted primary process whereby the two main political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, will choose their presidential candidates who will finally be in contest (on November the 8th, 2016) for the White House, the official residence of the US President.

Take the US presidential election first. Unlike India and Canada that have Prime Ministerial system where people elect the members of the legislature and they in turn elect by majority their leader, the Americans elect directly (through the electoral college) their President as the chief executive. The two political parties begin their nation-wide process of selecting their presidential candidate almost 15 months before the actual election day.

For the 2016 presidential race, on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are in competition whereas the Republican party has to pick up one from about a dozen aspirants; Donald Trump is right now leading but that could change. There’s a long arduous process of "primaries" and "caucuses" in each of the 50 states that includes several rounds of televised debates between candidates of the same party. After having been elected in the primary first, the two party nominees enter the final election campaign interspersed with at least three nationally televised debates. One is elected in November.

So, if the American party system and the presidential election process were to be followed in India, for the election of a Prime Minister or a Chief Minister, all the leaders, for example, from Narendra Modi to Rahul Gandhi to Nitish Kumar, will have to win first the vote of their party members/supporters from all the states.
That means if Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi were to be the party candidates for the Prime Minister, in order to qualify, they would have to go to every single state in India and win the majority vote of their respective party members. There they could be challenged by another candidate belonging to their own party; they would have to debate and present their case to the people as to how they would be better than the other(s) in the race. Then they would be elected as the leader of their respective parties and enter into the final round of election. People will vote for one of the two parties and their candidates knowing well who would be the Prime Minister if one gets the majority.

In other words, there would be no equivalent of parliamentary board or executive committee or politbureau of a political party that will meet and, through manipulative bargain, decide on the Prime or Chief Ministerial candidates. In the case of the states too, Nitish Kumar and Sushil Modi, in Bihar for example, will have to go to each Legislative Assembly constituency and win over the primary from their party members/supporters. There they can be challenged or debated by any other member of their party followed by a vote.

A candidate for the membership of the Legislative Assembly or Parliament will also have to go through the same open primary system where people from the grassroots up would hear out candidates, weigh one against the other, judge their honesty and competence, before voting for one.

In Canada, the process of selection of party candidates/leaders is almost the same as in the US. There are multiple political parties with three or four in the lead. They all elect their national as well as state or local level leaders through primaries where people have direct participation. Right now, the Canadian Liberal Party is headed by an equivalent of Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress, but with huge difference. Justin Trudeau, the son of the late Pierre Trudeau, the 15th Prime Minister of Canada, enjoyed name recognition because of his father but he had to work very hard to contest for the leadership of the party in every province. A family member, school teacher, party strategist and impressive speaker, Justin was openly challenged by other party leaders in every riding (name for constituency in Canada) and came out victorious. If his party wins the majority, he will be the Prime Minister. The same process takes place in the rival Conservative or National Democratic Party (NDP) also. There’s no dynastic hang over as in the Indian National Congress with the Sonia-Rahul combine or a host of family owned regional parties.

In India, particularly in Bihar, the persistent problem with the candidates selected is that they don’t necessarily have direct connection with the people they are supposed to represent. There are some exceptional party loyalists who nurse their constituencies, but usually a person who hasn’t worked in an area, stayed in Patna or Delhi, hung around party bosses with money and logistics, get party tickets and depending on the political climate of the time wins or loses the election. Selection by a party means selection by the party bigwigs, not through a rigorous process involving people.

In that case, the candidates by virtue of their buying power (the purse), caste background, or blood kinship, get to be the party nominees. In one word, corruption and nepotism abound in political parties that are hardly driven by ideology or programs. The candidates have no commitment and therefore can easily switch sides, defect or be bought and sold.

In Bihar, the three main ticket dispensing individuals are Lalu Yadav (RJD), Nitish Kumar (JDU), and Sushil Modi (BJP). They will examine the winnability of the candidates, but in the interest of their own position, all of them will secure personal loyalty of the candidates who will be getting tickets from them. No idea from where the Congress tickets will be delivered, Patna or Delhi?

In the end, the electorate, on the day of the voting, will have very limited or forced choices. In the selection of the candidates he/she had no say. If the voters’ turn out is impressive, there may still be 30 to 40 percent voters not voting. The rest of the voters are usually splintered in contests that are not bipolar. A candidate with plurality of votes is declared elected even if he/she had far less than 50 percent of the total votes polled.

Dr. Binoy Shanker Prasad hails from Darbhanga and currently resides with his family in Dundas, Ontario (Canada). He has authored conference papers, articles and chapters on Bihar in previously published books in the United States, India and Canada.

Dr. Prasad administers a facebook page: and has sponsored “Aware Citizenship Campaign” at a micro-level in his home-town.


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