Mark this month: January 2013. Looking back from 2014, or even beyond, we will probably recall that this was the month in which the country's two main political poles — the Congress and the BJP — decided to make themselves increasingly irrelevant.
While the Congress elevated Rahul Gandhi as Vice-President and emphasised its dynastic character despite the heir apparent’s protestations to the contrary, the BJP decided to shoot itself in the foot by re-electing lacklustre Nitin Gadkari as its President for a second term. It has chosen to kowtow to the wishes of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Singh (RSS).
By doing what they did, both of India’s national parties have signalled that they will resist change, proving once again that they are risk-averse. Both prefer the comforting cocoon of family or parivar when a changing India is posing new challenges for leadership everywhere.
Both Congress and BJP are parties with similar, though not same, problems. Both Tweedledum and Tweedledee are flunking their tests.
The Congress is stuck with a listless Gandhi family; the BJP is stuck with the Sangh Parivar, which it can neither disown nor embrace.
Even their leaders have been shown to be less than selfless.
The Congress chief and her family have been caught in controversial real estate dealings: while Sonia Gandhi and Rahul got the party to finance their private takeover of a Rs 1,600 crore property (Associated Journals, which owns Herald House in Delhi), son-in-law Robert Vadra has been making merry in sweetheart realty deals with DLF and others.
Nitin Gadkari has been caught using dubious means to bankroll his Purti Group.
Both parties are steeped in corruption scandals. The Congress in the 2G, Coalgate and CWG scams, and the BJP in various state-level scams, especially the mining and land scams of Karnataka.
Both parties had their chances of breaking free; both failed to grasp the opportunity when political fate led their parties to defeat.
Both parties had – and have – elements of greatness, but they decided to abandon them.
The Congress has been losing elections in many states as it won't develop local leaders. The BJP has been losing elections at the centre because the RSS won't let the party elect its own popular leader.
The Congress’ greatest moment was during Narasimha Rao’s prime ministership. The party could thus lay claim to not only bringing India political freedom, but also real economic freedom.
Under the Gandhi family, the party is sliding back to economic unfreedom and aam aadmi rhetoric, disowning the legacy of Rao's reforms.
If Narasimha Rao had only got one more term, India would have been beating the stuffing out of China by now.
But defeat in 1996 took the courage out of Congress, and it went back to the warm embrace of an empty dynastic order – with no new ideas, and a return to all the failed policies of the Indira Gandhi era – state intervention, high public spending, and a clear shift away from reform.
The BJP too got its chance, but lost its nerve when it faced defeat.
The BJP’s greatest moment was under Atal Behari Vajpayee. Vajpayee’s government put the reforms back on track despite slow growth. Vajpayee made India a global player, aided by Y2K, a Kargil victory, and the headwinds provided by the global war on terror after 9/11. His government privatised with a vengeance, got infrastructure investments rolling, and almost deregulated and reformed the energy sector.
If Vajpayee had got just one more term, India would again have been giving China a run for its money. But the high growth years that were to follow went to the UPA, which presumed that the growth was the result of its own policies and took it as a compliment. It squandered the opportunities and landed the Indian economy in a mess.
In defeat, the BJP after 2004 has been completely incoherent on both political strategy and economic policy. Like the Congress after 1996-99, the party went running to Mama, the RSS, after its unexpected 2004 defeat. It has mortgaged its future to the parivar.
And now, with the impending return of Nitin Gadkari as party chief despite his foolish capers with the Purti Group, it has showed that its central leadership kitty is empty.
Both Congress and BJP have lost the plot. Parties that cannot even throw up leaders with capability cannot control the future.
The key takeout for both parties is this: leadership is not a gift bestowed by someone outside the party. It has to be developed within, and from the ground up.
But the Congress has chosen to choose its leaders only from above (the Gandhi family), and the BJP seems to be willing to accept leaders donated by the RSS.
Rahul Gandhi may well want to develop 40-50 leaders in the party, both at centre and states, but who will take him seriously when he has elevated himself to the top job without any opposition? Can leaders be developed by nomination and self-selection?
The BJP has done the same damage to itself. It should never have allowed the RSS to nominate its leader. But such is the cowardice of the party’s top brass, that none has had the temerity to tell the Sangh where to get off.
The issue is not that no member of the Gandhi family, or a Sanghi, should ever become chief of the Congress or the BJP. But this has to happen by giving all leaders equal opportunities to rise. A good leader from the Gandhi family can occasionally run the party, but he (or she) has to win his (or her) spurs by proving leadership qualities on the ground. Rahul Gandhi should have first proven he can lead in one state, or even in a ministry, but he has steadfastly avoided responsibility. His rise has nothing to do with ability.
The same goes for Nitin Gadkari, who is at best a technocrat with low leadership qualities. He may make a good industry minister (he was a good PWD minister in the Sena-BJP government in Maharashtra), but he has no following. Which is why the RSS has nominate him. The BJP’s real leaders are in the states – not at the centre. But the RSS is more comfortable with a yes-man, someone with little grassroots support.
If this situation does not reverse itself in the Congress and BJP, both parties will decline. In 2014, we could well see a bunch of regional parties making both parties irrelevant. At least at the regional level, there are leaders who have risen from the ranks. They are nobody’s flunkies.