Dictatorships and primaries

In their excellent book “the dictator’s handbook” Bruno bueno de Mesquita and Alastair smith talk about why dictatorships usually put on a garb of democracy and hold (mostly) sham elections.

According to bueno de Mesquita and smith the reason is not to appear good in front of the international community, as the general discourse goes. Dictators are extremely rational actors, they say, and reputation in the international community didn’t usually give enough benefit to compensate for the cost of the garb of democracy and elections.

Instead, bueno de Mesquita and smith say that the real purpose of the elections is to keep followers in check. If a member of the dictator’s team “misbehaves” for example, getting rid of him is normally a difficult process. Essentially sacking is a hard job for anyone, even for hard nosed dictators. In the context of dictatorships sackings can get controversial and often bloody and is not a particularly pleasant process.

By putting in a garb of democracy, however, there is an easy way to sack an official. Assuming that in a dictatorship most citizens vote according to the fancies of the dictator, all a dictator needs to do to sack an official is to instruct the electorate to vote against the official the next time he is up for reelection. The sacking having been effected by “popular mandate”, the process is easier and likely to be less bloody and troublesome for the dictator.

Now, the question is if we can use this framework to understand the new US-style primary elections that the Indian national congress has been using for candidate selection in some constituencies in the forthcoming elections.

Normally in the congress, like in most other parties in India, candidates for elections are determined top-down, by the party “high command”. The risk with this however is that candidates who did not get a ticket to contest the elections know that for whatever reason the party high command is not in favour of them contesting. This can lead to disillusionment and can lead to defections to rival parties.

In this context a primary election acts as a facade through which the party high command can get its choice of candidates without pissing off those applicants who did not get the ticket. Now the purported message to these unsuccessful applicants is that the next time they should work of getting the support of the party rank and file in their constituency.

In reality however, with the party being high command driven, the rank and file has voted as per the instructions of the high command! The high command thus gets its choice of candidates without losing the support of the unsuccessful candidates.

So why is it that primaries work in the US? For the same reasons that elections work in democracies! In the US parties are truly democratic and organised bottom up. There is no high command there to (credibly) dictate the choices for the rank and file. So the results of the primaries are truly reflective of the opinion of the party rank and file.

In conclusion, given the high command based structure of political parties in India, primaries will not work. Instead they will only end up as instruments in the hands of the party high commands, just like the sham elections on dictatorships.

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