Monday, 3 April 2017

The curse of the ‘strong leader’

Tabish Khair in The Hindu

A strong leadership may be fine, but only if the leaders do not end up turning their political parties into ghosts

One feels for Rahul Gandhi. He has to cope with not one but two ‘strong leaders’: Narendra Modi and his own grandmother, Indira Gandhi.

Rahul Gandhi is haunted by the ghost of a once worker-cadre-based party, the Congress, which ‘strong leader’ Mrs. Gandhi transformed into a family-run, one-boss organisation. Rahul Gandhi’s failure in Uttar Pradesh, Assam, etc. has little to do with his own abilities or inabilities; it has to do with a common feeling among Indians that the Congress needs to be led by a charismatic leader whose surname is not and has never been ‘Gandhi’ or ‘Nehru’.

Indians are not unique in this: given the nexus of politicians and finance capital and the transformation of politics into a kind of initiated profession, where connections matter far too much, the ordinary voter is suspicious of leaders whose prominence seems to be a family- or peer group-inheritance. So suspicious that the voter can even prefer a person with no solution over a better and more deserving candidate, as we witnessed in the U.S. last year, simply because the former is seen as not being an insider.

When Congress lost coherence

Even the ill-gotten millions of an ‘outsider’ candidate no longer disqualify him, as long as his opponent is seen as part of the political establishment. Riches, the voter (mistakenly) believes, can come to him too, but political inheritance — of the sort associated with Hillary Clinton and Rahul Gandhi — cannot. And in this latter supposition the voter is not mistaken. This gets worse, as is the case with the Congress now, thanks to a process initiated by Mrs. Gandhi, when the party seems hardly to exist apart from its top leadership.

No doubt, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru did fight to shape the Congress, but they encouraged much difference too. This showed in the wide variety of pan-national leaders the Congress threw up in that period: Sarojini Naidu, Vallabhbhai Patel, Abul Kalam Azad, Rajendra Prasad, Lal Bahadur Shastri, etc.

It is with the ‘strong leader’ personality cult that Mrs. Gandhi encouraged in the 1970s that the Congress began to lose both its internal coherence and a repertoire of equivalent national-level leaders. At the level of party structure, this led to the gradual evaporation of committed Congress workers at district and village levels and their replacement with careerists and strategists rushing off to party headquarters at the drop of a Gandhi cap. Today, the Congress is far less a worker-cadre-based party than the BJP. This ghostly Congress party — reduced to a family name that most voters are tired of hearing — is Rahul Gandhi’s bane. Despite this, it is not the Congress today but the BJP that seems to be following Mrs. Gandhi’s doubtful legacy: the curse of the ‘strong leader’ which reduces a political party to a ghostly affair in later years.

Conservatives united

I have never dismissed the BJP as a genuine party within a democratic India, as I have considered it a party with various tendencies — not that dissimilar from the Congress of yore — united by a few core commonalities. What passes for the BJP is a collocation of conservatives of various kinds, pro-market ideologists, nationalists, cultural revivalists, religious chauvinists, and reactionaries. All of them are united by a general belief in an India structured along ‘Hindu’ rather than secular lines, even though their understanding of ‘Hindu’ is not identical. Again, as the Congress was before the 1970s, the BJP is essentially a grass-roots party united by a cadre which includes, and is dominated (for better or for worse), by cadres of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The BJP allows more upward mobility for its workers than the Congress today.

This, then, is the BJP as it has been until now. While lacking the azadi-inspired breadth of the Gandhi-Nehruvian Congress, it has nevertheless thrown up major leaders of national visibility such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani, many of whom, like Narendra Modi himself, rose from the ranks.

All this might be changing in the BJP today, as it slowly becomes a personality-based ‘strong leader’ party. It is not a coincidence that the only Congress leader that supporters of Mr. Modi sometimes praise is Mrs. Gandhi: ‘Modi’s India’ may not be that far apart from ‘Indira is India.’

There is a pattern — reminiscent of the Congress in the 1970s — of concentrating party power in the top echelons and appointing ministers and Chief Ministers (most recently in Uttar Pradesh) who seem incapable of gaining a national stature. Strong leaders may be fine, but only if they do not end up turning their parties into ghosts.

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