Contextualising L K Advani’s truculence and sulk-sodden antics that have prevented a smooth transfer of power to a new generation of leaders in the Bharatiya Janata Party is the perennial problem afflicting all politics in the subcontinent — the absence of orderly succession. Not only is no thought given to succession planning, there is nary a hint of institutional mechanisms and procedures in political parties to engineer such periodically inevitable transitions. It is the old historical failing of Indians (and South Asians, generally) that they seem incapable of, and disinclined to countenance, other than messy power shifts. From the Mughal period, if it was not Aurangzeb battling Dara Shikoh for the throne in Delhi then it is an Advani resisting Narendra Modi’s rise.
The way around the complexities, wrangling, and the heartaches attending on leadership changes is, of course, dynastic politics. It simplifies, clarifies, and injects predictability into succession norms by eliminating democratic selection of leaders in a milieu where dynastic succession enjoys cultural sanction. The Congress symbolises the dynast-dominated politics. Ironically, the person who legitimated it in the country post independence was the very leader most committed to liberal values and democratic practices — Jawaharlal Nehru.
It is remarkable how many Nehrus, Kauls, Kouls, Dhars, Dars, Kaos, etc. held high government positions when Jawaharlal was in his pomp in the Fifties, which continued in the reign of Indira Gandhi. Indeed, the open nepotism involved in the prime minister placing his younger sister, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, who, insofar as one can tell, had no special foreign policy expertise or any other credentials, as India’s ambassador successively in the Soviet Union and the United States, would not be tolerated today. It is the distance the Indian democratic system has travelled since then.
With so many close and distant relatives, and clansmen on the public payroll, it was as nothing for Jawaharlal Nehru to appoint his daughter, Indira, as president of the Congress party. It is another matter that, driven by her own ruthless brand of politics, she used that post to first sideline the party bosses once she became PM, and thereafter split the party and entrenched dynastic rule in the Indian polity. It encouraged the wild, fungal growth of splinter parties as family concerns. It is a trend tending towards absurdity. Thus, we have Lalu Prasad Yadav, claiming connections with Jayprakash Narayan and his movement against the authoritarianism of Indira Gandhi during the Emergency in the mid-1970s, who currently sides with the Congress and is best known for swaddling 15 years of grossest misrule in Patna with buffoonery. That he seems intent, moreover, on inflicting his large brood on his long-suffering state in times to come, should make Biharis despair for their future. And yet this same Lalu is actually expected to give Nitish Kumar — as clean and un-nepotistic a provider of good government in Bihar as Modi is in Gujarat — a run for his money.
Cadre-based parties, such as the BJP, should by now have rooted succession measures that are at once judicious, practical and fair, affording advancement to emerging leadership talent in the party of the kind existing in Britain. There prime ministerial candidates are voted to lead the party or are deposed (as happened with Margaret Thatcher despite leading the Conservative party to victory in three successive general elections) by members in party conventions. Backroom shenanigans and relying on the good sense of the top leader to manage the transition to gen-next leadership doesn’t always work.
Alas, Advani adopted the attitude of Queen Elizabeth II of England — can’t be moved; the designated successor, the Prince of Wales, be damned! Midway into the ninth decade of his life, he is adamantly optimistic about his chances of making it as prime minister in a political milieu that he anticipates will turn murkier and more conducive in the wake of the coming general elections. A fractured vote and a patchwork coalition turning to him as a compromise prime ministerial candidate, a la Deve Gowda or an Inder Kumar Gujral, is a scenario the political sage in Advani would instantly dismiss as rubbish. And yet he is convinced that the post he so ardently covets but couldn’t secure in his heyday will be offered him on a platter in his dotage. But thwarted ambition has clouded his judgment and smashed his fine-tuned political antennae. Hence, a bitter old man plots his big-time return and, in the process, hurts his party. Despite the peace the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has imposed on him and the BJP, there’s no guarantee Advani won’t pursue his game plan.
The RSS likes Modi, perhaps, even less than does Advani. After all, Narendra bhai marginalised it and other Hindu outfits in Gujarat. But it acknowledges Modi’s salience in the evolving political situation in the country for many of the same reasons that it reconciled to Atal Bihari Vajpayee taking control of the BJP in the mid-1990s — it will win the party votes. Vajpayee’s shambling, easy-going, nature reassured the people, persuading them to give the National Democratic Alliance a chance in the face of advertisements of Hindu extremism by opposing political parties. The more purposeful Modi has the galloping prosperity and good record of governance in his home state to counter alarms and rabid propaganda by the Congress and others about the dangers of a supposed “polariser” running the country.
In fact, it is Modi’s promise of extending the business-friendly economic model, successfully implemented in Gujarat, to the rest of India that has enthused the electorate, handing BJP the early advantage. It was last afforded the opportunity by the people fed up with Congress corruption (Bofors) and a series of ineffective small-party “Third Front” regimes stitched together on the run that followed. This time around it is years of paralysed government and brazen Congress’s corruption again but on an unimaginably vast scale that’s motivating voters to move to the BJP camp. Except now Modi’s economic philosophy and administrative acumen is the magnet.
Bharat Karnad is Professor at Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharat karnad.com