During the pre-Independence era, politics was perceived as synonymous with patriotism. This was natural as those in politics were essentially, and almost without any exception, fighting for India’s freedom. And yet, visionaries like Gopal Krishna Gokhale, the Guru of Mahatma Gandhi, had emphasised the need for spiritualisation of politics.
Notwithstanding the Mahatma’s influence over politics of those days in general and the Congress in particular, spiritualisation of politics largely remained a dream. This explains why Gandhiji advocated disbanding the Congress, which was of course not to happen for obvious reasons. By the time Independence dawned, the process of dilution of ideological commitment of Congress functionaries and the rank and file of that party had already started.
The emergence of the politics of patronage was both a result of as well as a reason for the dilution of ideology as motivational force. Understandably, politics of patronage cannot be completely eradicated, but when it replaces ideology, parties are bound to find themselves in the grip of a crisis of purpose. This explains why India’s GOP, the Congress, has been so very obsessed with remaining in power by hook or possibly crook. Journalist Edward Luce once said that attaining power “is also about preferential access to a wide range of public goods”, including “opportunity to jump queues, the ability to pull strings and the provision of free services for which the poor have to pay”.
During the times of Indira Gandhi, this politics of patronage was reduced to a scheme of personal obligations and from there on, the role of ideology diminished further. As a result, after the seventies, unlike its previous incarnation, the Congress became a centralised organisation insisting only on loyalty to the leadership. Consequently, it lost touch with real issues and was interested in government till such time as the flow of patronage continued.
Many believe that this ‘loyalty’ to leadership was also based on one’s ability to ensure this flow. The result was that the Congress fell prey to internal bickering and factional fights that were more personal than policy-related. Later, with the advent of dynasty-based political parties, patronage-centric politics spread like a contagious disease. However, like any formula, this too had its expiry date. As the voters became more choosey, their voting preferences became less based on party loyalties. A case in point is the recent verdict in Bihar.
The Bihar verdict is an indication of how performance (of parties while in governance) is fast replacing patronage. Many commentators who have analysed the Bihar verdict have habitually used terms like Modi magic and the continuing charisma of the prime minister. However, to look at this verdict through the usual prism of shifting community vote banks responding to identity issues and patronage networks influencing voting decisions would be to misread it completely.
The election result is an endorsement of the fact that the very grammar of Indian politics is fast changing. There are at least three pointers to this. Firstly, the discourse around Bihar has for the first time seen almost no references to abbreviations like MY (Muslim-Yadav) or KHAM (Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasis-Muslims), etc. In fact, the RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav had reportedly described MY as also Majdoor and Youth and not just Muslims and Yadav.
This is a welcome change as it not just broadens the social bracketing but also secularises the same. In fact, Tejashwi had tried to weave a narrative on the issue of jobs, and apparently, less on any community identity issue. Similarly, the NDA campaign spoke more about development of Bihar through a ‘double-engine’ train where the Central and state governments can make concerted efforts.
Secondly, the Bihar verdict also can be deciphered as a decisive rejection of dynastic politics. In the beginning of the campaign, Tejashwi’s ability to attract massive crowds was touted as a wave in his favour. The RJD leader is young and has little exposure to and experience of governance. Hence, the only reason why people turned up in huge numbers was their curiosity to see how Lalu Prasad Yadav’s son looks and speaks. Tejashwi too was perhaps aware of this and hence, he refrained from referring to his father or the Lalu regime. It is to be noted that the Bihar electorate has decisively rejected the next-generation candidates of the families of Sharad Yadav and Shatrughan Sinha, two senior leaders.
Thirdly, this rejection of caste and community narratives and waning influence of dynastic politics is robustly complemented by the BJP’s development politics. A close scrutiny of PM Modi’s speeches would reveal as to how his courage of conviction in not deviating from development politics is evident. Development politics is not just about appealing to the new emerging aspirational sections of society. Politics of performance is very much inherent to this.
The entire NDA campaign was based on what Nitish Kumar as CM and Narendra Modi as PM have done under their respective governments for the people of Bihar. Even references to Ram Mandir should be seen as a ‘report to the electorate’ on implementing the promise given. The NDA leaders reminding the electorate of the Jungle Raj was indicative of the element of comparing the performances of different regimes and Tejashwi obviously had nothing to say on this.
Also remarkably, neither in Bihar nor in any other state where by-elections were held, no party other than the BJP/NDA had the gumption to talk about its performance while in government. This is like accepting the copyright of the BJP on the term ‘politics of performance’. The Bihar and by-elections verdicts can be construed as a huge endorsement of the deft handling of the pandemic in particular and the performance of the BJP/NDA governments, both at the Centre and in the states. This is crucial in the larger context of democracy too. Representative democracy is all about the element of choice. And performance is a singularly important criterion to assess parties and exert that choice.
President, ICCR, and BJP Rajya Sabha MP (firstname.lastname@example.org)