Ideology is dead. Long live personae. A myth waits to be exploded. Arrogant leaders will only devour ideologies. Self-proclaimed national satraps who avoid facing the electorate hide in opulent strategy rooms. Sons, daughters, sisters, sons-in-law and even cousins will decide poll strategies and candidates. Manifestos will be written not by party leaders but by ad agencies and unemployed intellectuals in search of an identity. Poll 2014 began with the lofty slogan on inclusiveness combined with decisive leadership. But as the brangle over seizing winnable seats get uglier, the elections could end up as a fight between feuding family members and rootless snobs who are determined to destroy the future of popular leaders and replace them with sycophants, or even superannuated lickspittle babus. Almost all political outfits—BJP, Congress and regional parties—are once again placing their confidence in glamour, networking and pedigree as the criteria to choose candidates.
For the past three months, BJP’s premier candidate has been spreading his carbon footprint all over the country, selling his idea of India. He has never missed an opportunity to unfold his action plan for India’s growth to make it one of the most prosperous global powers. At all his 70-odd rallies attended by over 30 million people, he spoke about Swaraj and providing clean candidates. But last week, his party was involved in turf battles over seat allocations. For even BJP insiders, the confrontation between the supporters of Murali Manohar Joshi and Narendra Modi over the Varanasi seat came as a shocker. For almost a week before the meeting was held in New Delhi, poster wars and verbal scrimmages had broken out in Varanasi between both factions. Joshi has won the seat twice with comfortable margins. His performance as the HRD Minister in the NDA government might have been controversial, but he is still the BJP’s most acceptable Brahmin face in Uttar Pradesh after Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The acrimony over Varanasi brings to spotlight BJP’s dilemma on finding a seat for its PM candidate. Undoubtedly, Modi is the most popular political leader in the country. His rising acceptability in large parts of India should make the party confident of his victory from any seat in the north. But both Modi and BJP feel he should contest from Uttar Pradesh, and that too from Varanasi. The idea of Modi standing from Lucknow was dropped because of the considerable number of minority votes in the constituency. But the fight over Varanasi is an indication that even PM candidates are looking for safe seats, betraying faith in their own achievements and capacity to win from any part of the country. Another BJP leader whose name has always been advertised as a possible PM candidate appears to be backing out again, along with other rootless leaders on the plea that they have to manage the polls, which they unsuccessfully did in 2009 and ensured that the party lost the election under Advani’s generalship. Moreover, some senior party leaders have also questioned the wisdom of replacing a senior candidate with Modi—who could easily win from one of the many other seats in Uttar Pradesh. If Joshi can be asked to shift to another constituency, why can’t Modi be asked to fight from any other seat, they ask.
The saga of an individual becoming more important than an ideology doesn’t end with Modi alone. The BJP is striking deals with varied leaders with dubious track records. Ignoring the views of prominent party palatines in Bihar and Karnataka, the BJP gave Ram Vilas Paswan the saffron handshake. It legitimised caste chieftains like former Karnataka CM B S Yeddyurappa only to show that Modi was attracting allies, even those who face criminal cases and are known party-hoppers. Elsewhere in the country, BJP hospodars have been engaging the progeny of even picayune regional political padrones to extend their support for Modi’s legions.
In the meantime, within the Congress, Rahul has been losing grip over the selection process. He has been told that individuals are more powerful than a dynasty’s nationwide allure. The selection of candidates like Ashok Chavan’s wife proves that the Gandhi cognomen is not powerful enough for the Congress to ensure the victory of its party candidates. Rahul has been vocal about dropping tainted candidates but is now left to accommodate some of the party’s most notorious leaders who could easily demolish its electoral prospects if not given tickets. His experiment of choosing 15 candidates through primaries seems to have backfired because some controversial candidates appear to command much more grassroots support. The situation is much worse in the household of Lalu Prasad, who leads the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar. He chose family members over other clean, acceptable leaders. He promises to fight Nitish Kumar’s non-performing government only by putting up his wife and daughter as Lok Sabha candidates from safe seats. In the east, even Mamata Banerjee, considered to be a down-to-earth leader who believes in simple living, has fallen victim to the glamour quotient by sponsoring political novices as candidates. She feels Kollywood glitterati, sports personalities and novelists are best suited to carry forward her alternative agenda for good governance. She has been picking up former corporate lobbyists, journalists and ad honchos to compensate for the absence of thought leaders. But none of her protégés are known to have revealed any knowledge about Mamatanomics and Didipolitik.
Most constituents of the failed Third Front depend more on individuals and relatives to boost their chances. Mulayam Singh Yadav has never given up his right to nominate half-a-dozen relatives as SP candidates in the coming elections. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, India’s most powerful leaders are looking only for individuals who can add a few votes; track records be damned. Tragically, India is likely to get a PM whose anointment was managed through visible and invisible affidations with individuals and opportunistic parties and not because of a mandate from Maximum India.
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