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These are 'testing' times

Politics in India never ceases to surprise and Maharashtra is no exception. In a radical move, Raj Thackeray and his MNS have subjected all aspirants to upcoming local body polls to a written test. The test a 90-minute exercise was to have both objective and descriptive questions. Conducted across the state, the test was mandatory to both new aspirants and sitting MNS corporators. While the exam paper was not leaked, as is customary with many exams in India, one did get a glimpse of the kind of questions that were asked on the functioning of local bodies. 

Much debate will likely ensue on the fidelity of the evaluation and on the meaningfulness of using the performance in this test as a benchmark for selecting candidates in the upcoming polls. Parallels will be drawn with other methods of candidate selection for a general election such as holding Primaries based on Ballots and conducting Caucuses. There is very little appreciation though on how democracy based on the party system has evolved in other mature democracies and the time horizon over which such an evolution happened.


MNS evolution? Raj Thackeray's MNS conducted a mandatory written 
test for aspiring candidates for the upcoming civic polls 

As an example for nearly the first 50 years of Presidential Democracy in the United States, the Presidential candidate was chosen by the Legislators of the respective parties in Washington DC. That system changed to nomination by representatives within a National Convention sometime in the mid-1800s. It was not until the early 1900s that we see the first instance of the present-day Primary system. Even then adoption was spotty and it was not until the late 1960s that there was nationwide ubiquity in how candidates were selected based on grassroots democracy. Grassroots democracy for candidate continues to be work in progress even in the US as individual states jockey to move the calendar.

When we lament the dysfunctional state of the Indian democracy we forget that we comparing an evolution in the West that happened over nearly a 200-yr time period with what is essentially a young democracy in its toddler days. Technology has no doubt allowed India to leapfrog on several fronts. In some respects political innovations unique to India like a Federal Election Commission that efficiently executes a 100% electronic election can put even some of these more mature democracies to shame. However to expect a social change of the magnitude that occurs over two centuries to be achieved within a short 60-odd years is a reflection of our impatience for change more than anything else.

Many forget that the American Republic nearly 100 years after it came into existence had a near death experience in the form of the Civil War. Some may compare the Indian Emergency of the 1970s with that near death experience but it was not quite on the same scale. Our seemingly dysfunctional democracy has a long way to go, growing out of its Toddler years into Adolescence and eventually into Adulthood. A written examination for candidates may not reflect grassroots voter sentiments. The many flaws in its execution will likely end up doing more damage than good. Nevertheless it says something that for 90 minutes all budding and sitting politicians at the local level were humbled into quiet introspection and reflection on the task they have set themselves about. 

In a country that has taken "test taking" to a level of professional sophistication to spawn a mini-economy around "test taking", this MNS Test may not be a big deal. In the years to come every possible trick in the book that has been applied to guile the unsuspecting examiner, will likely get applied here. But nevertheless a beginning has been made to drive home the point that a basic democratic temperament on the nature and functioning of local government is a pre-requisite for those seeking to represent their wards. In this context it must be said that Rahul Gandhi's Youth Congress experiments deserve credit too despite the process resulting in flawed electoral outcomes. While Rahul Gandhi may not have succeeded in leveling the playing field within his Youth Congress elections, a beginning has been made. As a first step the process of holding ballots has been institutionalized. If not in the first iteration, subsequent iterations will likely yield the desired outcomes.

Where the MNS' test will go from here will depend on the kind of institutional leadership Raj Thackeray provides to it in the days to come. Politics in Maharashtra has for long been fragmented resulting in the re-election of NCP-Congress combine despite the monumental incompetence of its previous Chief Ministers. The BJP and the Shiv Sena are attempting a new kind of consolidation with their new found alliance partner Ramdas Athavale of the RPI. In this mix Raj Thackeray continues to be the wild card. He may have taken time out to study Narendra Modi's Gujarat but it is far from clear if he has come of age to become Maharashtra's Narendra Modi. 

Raj Thackeray's creative side came through with this radical experiment to set entry criteria for aspiring candidates. It will be interesting to observe his evolution along other leadership dimensions, as he looks set to challenge both status quo and conventional political wisdom in Maharashtra. 

Shashi Shekhar is a social media commentator on Indian politics and public policy. His blog can be found at http://blog.offstumped.in. Opnions expessed in this column are his persional views

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