Congress to relaunch primaries for Mumbai civic polls

The Congress hasn’t won a Mumbai municipality election in two decades.

Written by Sandeep Ashar | Mumbai | Updated: May 22, 2016 5:36:06 am

IN A bid to reinvent itself after the latest poll drubbing, the Congress is all set to relaunch Rahul Gandhi’s experiment of holding primaries for selecting candidates who wish to run on the party’s ticket for a second time, senior party leaders said.

The party envisages adopting the primaries model for choosing candidates for the 2017 civic polls in Mumbai, the country’s richest municipality, as well as in the national capital. Just as in the US, a system of “primaries” to select candidates would mean that before anyone in any constituency (a municipal ward in this case) is given a party ticket, he would have to fight out primary elections against other similar aspirants.

Mumbai Congress chief and former Parliamentarian Sanjay Nirupam said, “Rahul Gandhiji has endorsed and consented to holding primaries for choosing candidates to all the 227 elective municipal wards in Mumbai. The Delhi unit of the Congress party was also mulling over the same option.”

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Earlier, Rahul Gandhi had introduced the model for some constituencies during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, but the Congress had abandoned it following opposition from a section of the party.

In its second attempt, the party will first try out the concept in local body polls. A senior party functionary admitted, “Top leaders often use their clout to lobby for giving party ticket to an aspirant of their choice, which often triggers infighting and rebellion.”

While the Congress had largely limited the electoral college to active party workers during the first failed bid, the plan for Mumbai is to hold a fresh three-month-long membership drive in each ward before holding such primaries. All new and existing party members residing in a ward will be eligible to vote in the internal primary.

The party has also proposed to adopt the 50 per cent plus one election system, which is followed in some European countries, where a candidate has to poll over 50 per cent of all votes to win the party ticket.

“If no candidate manages to get to the 50 per cent mark, then the election panel will announce the names of the top two candidates, who would then fight it out for a second time for the party’s nomination,” Nirupam said.

The Congress hasn’t won a Mumbai municipality election in two decades. The party was also wiped out during the Lok Sabha polls in the city, and performed miserably in the subsequent Assembly polls. And while it occupies the principal Opposition party space in the municipality, party insiders concede that a “lacklustre performance” from the party’s corporators has seen it cede “some of this space too.” The party think tank believes that using the primaries model as a pull would enthuse the party’s rank and file, which is demoralised, and add more members in time for the elections.

Even though poll pundits are already billing the upcoming Mumbai polls as a match between the Shiv Sena and the BJP, the Congress wants to ensure that it has a chance. “There is a growing sense of disenchantment against Sena. Disappointment against the BJP is also rising. This is an opportunity for the Congress to capitalise on,” said a Mumbai Congress leader.

But even as Rahul Gandhi has directed the party’s local leadership to discuss the initiative with local leaders, the opinion in the party fold remains divided.

A former minister said the new model, if implemented, will make ‘winnability’ of a candidate the sole criteria. But, he cautioned, the last time this was tried, local leaders had rigged some of the primaries. But another senior leader said: “Popularity among party members doesn’t always mean popularity among other constituency workers.”

If all goes as planned, the party will launch the concept in June, which would be followed by a three-month-long membership drive. The party is in talks with some retired election commission officials, who may be roped in as observers.

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