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Dynastic Politics, Personality Cults And Other Maladies Of Indian Democracy

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Since the 2010 election, when the Indian electorate gave a thumping majority to the complacent BJP-led NDA government, the voices against the majoritarianism had only grown louder. The government repeatedly had been accused of vitiating the atmosphere of communal harmony; hence, being accused of destroying India’s ability to co-exist with its diversities peacefully. The government had also been accused of being downright Fascist on the floor of the Parliament itself. With many media houses kowtowing the official narratives as the only important version of a story, these accusations are only getting bigger. But while these accusations are doing the rounds, it also gives us an opportunity to introspect and reflect on the kind of democracy we are becoming.

Even a casual look-back reveals that the events of 2019 or even 2014 are merely symptomatic of the malaise that has long infected Indian politicking. Indian masses gave a mandate which had been fed to it from each political party since the last five-six decades. It is the long-respected yesmanship within each political parties.

Yes-Sir/Ma’am-ship is a serious concern for Indian democracy as it is a foundation work for dictatorial aspirations. The only surprise of the last Lok Sabha election had been the successful projection of one man as an answer to everyone’s problem. Something so big at a national level after Mandalisation of Indian politics was thought to be impossible for any national political party. Additionally, there had always been a serious dearth of charismatic leadership whose appeal cut across different segments of India’s diverse populations. Hence, when BJP under the leadership of Modi successfully mobilized a huge mandate in its favour, it was seen as a surprise by many.

But it hardly differs with the kind of affinities Indian voters have shown over the years in India’s electoral politics. While Modi definitely benefited from the relentless labour of RSS and its affiliates— in mobilizing not only the upper castes but also OBCs and significant segment of SCs in its favour—his rise in BJP has also been seen more as an exception than the rule within the BJP. The recent comment by the octogenarian MM Joshi on PM Modi and his associates in the party suggests that the internal democracy in BJP is on a decline.

A few parties still follow democratic traditions internally to choose their leaders. Paradoxically, Marxists Left parties and Hindu nationalist BJP are the best examples of parties with thriving internal democracy. Almost all other parties, including those who claimed to be champions of the downtrodden, have all handed down the leadership of their celebrated causes to their family members if not to the male child of the family.

The one-man-ship is also associated with the other significant features of our country’s polity. These are, as the following:

Personality Cult: India Loves Its Politicians

Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) is also one of the personality-driven parties. In Bihar, with all the major political factions claiming themselves to be the successors of Karpuri Thakur and JP Movement, it’s very difficult to differentiate between all the parties except for their characteristic caste and its alliances. Similarly, leaders such as Ajit Jogi, TRS, TDP and Jagan’s YSR-Congress are all personality-based parties. A recent addition has been Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, which successfully removed many prominent faces and founding members of the party that owed its origin to Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement.

Ms Mayawati emerged as the successor of the Bahujan movement after Kanshi Ram remained a powerful face of Dalit politics in the country. Of late, BSP was accused of ignoring the movement by its cadres and unit leaders many times. BSP gained in the recent Lok Sabha election compared to the last Lok Sabha, but the personality cult had affected a unified Dalit movement in northern India. Mamata Banerjee has also emerged as a champion of the common masses in a state where all major political parties claim to have the same ideological commitment. The cult-based politics in India has routinely become a dynastic party, as the internal democracy had successively served only the Patriarch and its scions.

Dynastic Politics

In India, personality cult had routinely become a dynastic political party. The examples are all around us. The party patriarch’s decision over the next generation leadership is more readily acceptable than the general perceptions. While Priyanka-Rahul is an oft-quoted example, it is important to focus on others as well. Different regional powerhouses have often displayed their dynastic tradition quite openly. The succession of Uddhav in Shiv Sena was announced while many party leaders, in general, were expecting Raj to succeed Balasaheb’s legacy. Although the party got divided, most of the old guard remained loyal to Uddhav’s succession—as it had the will of their patriarch.

Similarly, in Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav’s recent feud with uncle Shivpal was met with a similar fate, where (SP) party loyalists understood the patriarch’s support to Akhilesh leadership. The stories have been similar for the powerhouses in Bihar (RJD), Haryana (INLD) and Punjab (Akali) as well. These stories have an important underline, which is the patriarch’s opinion—the main reason their main constituency more or less remain committed to the party.

The other dynasts of Indian politics are Nationalist Congress Party (in Maharashtra), National Conference, PDP (both Kashmir-based), AIMIM (Telangana), RLD (in U.P.), BJD (Odisha), and several strong regional power-lords in all major parties across the country. It must be highlighted that BJP also has more than 30 MPs in the current Lok Sabha who come from well-known political families.

It reveals an important attribute of Indian voters more than it reveals anything about the kind of political party we choose to rule over us. India believes in Messianic politics. Strength, clarity, boldness and smartness can be projected through marketing, and this is exactly what has happened to our democracy. Indian society desperately needs leadership that connects with them and with their issues, and the closest connection till now has been that of caste and religion. If India’s youth believe in any meaningful change, they need to assert rejection of such heritage transmission of leadership. The rise of BJP also signifies the total absence of cadre-based political workers of the old political fiefs who have taken their affiliated caste and religious groups as an alternative to the dedicated cadre; a notion that suffered a massive jolt in the two consecutive elections.

Indian democracy is indeed suffering from a yesmanship, and the current government is no different. It speaks about the kind of political culture the country has chosen for itself, but it is the responsibility of all the political parties to remove this undemocratic tradition on a consensus. These trends are not going to make our democracy any stronger, no matter on which side of the spectrum you locate your politics.

A little analogy might bring home the point I have been trying to put across:

Consider the Indian democracy scene as something like the storyline of a South Indian masala movie—where nothing makes sense till the entry of the superstar. He makes superman look real as he single-handedly corrects injustices and makes the high and mighty bow down in penance. All these stories are fictional and yet predictable. But there is little doubt that people love these movies nonetheless. The impact is just not a financial success, but somehow these movie actors start commanding deep faith and respect of the masses.

It makes one wonder what kind of society enjoys such movies, which are devoid of all experiences and logic. The answer that rings in my head is a desperate one. No matter which side of politics we are, we continue to mistake the danger signs for democracy as the signposts to the garden of Eden. A democracy where democrats are autocrats, and where there is no hope for a dissenter. India’s love for its leaders, making them saints and Gods and often accepting their successors as demigods is a terribly misplaced ancient tradition where power-wielders have taken over the spiritual progression.

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  1. Himansu Kumar Nayak

    Beautifully written. Though BJP is not a dynasty-based party still, it promotes family politics which is true to some extent. The bitter truth is it became a one man party slowly but that doesn’t mean family members of Modi-Shah will join. I bet no prominent leader’s family member will ever join in politics and even if they join it will be injustice to say dynastic politics. For example, Manohar Parrikar’s son. I know he will join BJP but not now; at least after some years. The real problem is I have fear that BJP may follow Communist Party of China style to rule where a person will have enough rights to change the party and nation constituency which was not the core ideology of BJP/RSS. I hope BJP will continue the internal democracy to maintain its image against dynasty politics which is good to some extent for the nation as well as the party.

    1. Vipul Dixit

      Thanks for ur kind words.

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