Muddle of succession politics

Contextualizing 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 there 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 Mughul period on down if it was not Aurangzeb battling Dara Shikoh for the throne in Delhi than 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. Congress party symbolizes 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 state of affairs 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 party 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 Narendra 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 deposed (as Margaret Thatcher was 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 his ninth decade of 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 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 hey-day 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 marginalized 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’s taking control of the BJP in the mid-1990s – it will win the party votes. Vajpayee’s shambling, easygoing, 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 “polarizer” 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 the country that has enthused the electorate, handing BJP the early advantage. It was last afforded the opportunity by the people fed up with Congress party 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 paralyzed government and brazen Congress party 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.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Indian ecobomic situation, Indian Politics, Internal Security. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Muddle of succession politics

  1. mnas dhar says:

    Being a Dhar myself i had a bit of a hard time swallowing the fact kashmiri pandits were given preferential treatment during Nehru & Indira Gandhi regime. However, it is a fact which most pandits tend to forget while criticizing dynastic politics.
    although pandits now hold no political clout whatsoever.Guess its Karma doing a full circle.
    (Avid reader of your blogs. wish there was more to read. planning on buying your book as i have saturated whatever material you have put on the net. disagree on your Chinese assessment though , I think India is getting too close to U.S and indulging in military expansionism which will be hard to sustain)

  2. Vijaya Dar says:

    While it is true that the Kashmiri Pandits enjoyed disproportionate representation in plum government postings during the Nehru-Indira days, their loyalty to the family continues unabated despite the Congress having dumped them once militancy raised its head in Kashmir. The Pandits have themselves to blame for behaving like an unthinking vote bank whom the Congress always took for granted. The BJP and other political parties never tried to win them over as it was obvious where their sympathies lay. Today they have become a globally dispersed community, living like refugees in their own land, but still rooting for the Nehru family.

  3. Shaurya says:

    A couple of things. The PRC follows some type of unofficial dictum of years 75 being the oldest point by which, someone is put into a position. India should have similar law. More than a law, what is needed is for some of the principles of the old Ashrama Dharmas set of obligations to be lived in society again. VanaPrastha stage necessarily demanded that gradually the responsibility be handed over to the next generation. This issue of passing on to the next generation and “renunciation” of wealth and power is a critical stage and learning of our society, which has been forgotten. This issue is a large societal issue, faced in every family today.

    By such a combination of a soft “constitution” of practices and values combined with hard laws that puts an upper level age limit, only then such issues can be remedied.

    Anyways: I do think, LKA’s caution on Modi is proving to be right. The question is not if Modi is ready and suitable, the question is, is the country ready for a no nonsense manager with core convictions. JP Narayan used to say, ask the electorate only questions they can answer. Is out electorate ready to answer, the question of a Modi to lead the highest office? Pratap Bhanu Mehta in a recent article had written, true secularism, the one vested in strengthening of institutions and individual rights and equality has been long dead, the fight on the issue is between the hollow, the shallow and the callow.

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