The Aurangzeb factor: 5 lessons from Modi-Advani tussle
Political parties need to have a process for electing leaders. This problem relates more to cadre-based parties such as BJP and CPM.
Lal Krishna Advani’s decision to withdraw his resignation from three party posts yesterday may have ended the crisis in the BJP over the elevation of Narendra Modi as campaign committee chief, but rest assured, the core issue hasn’t gone away.
The core issue is this: how should parties prepare for an orderly transition in leadership? Should they do it the modern equivalent of the Aurangzeb way, by a show of force or internal intrigue, or should they have a proper process?
This is a problem only for the BJP and the Communists, since they do not believe in family rule.
In the Congress and almost all regional parties, primogeniture rules. Succession is what the family patriarch (or matriarch in the Congress right now) decides. Aurangzebs occasionally emerge from the woodwork when the incumbent son/daughter proves unworthy or unable to handle power (as evident in the MNS challenge to the Shiv Sena, or the N Chandrababu Naidu revolt against NTR, or the forthcoming DMK sibling war – between MK Stalin and MK Azhagiri).
The problem remains for the BJP and the Communists, for they are more cadre-based.
Without a proper process to select a leader, Modi had to establish his authority partly through the Aurangzeb route – as Jaithirth Rao eloquently argues in an article in The Economic Times – by a show of muscle and machismo using party workers. This has its downside: the loser will have no stake in being graceful in defeat, or in helping the new leader.
Says Rao: “If the BJP had held primary elections, then the loser would have had to go along, one way or the other. When faced with the inevitable, people usually opt for graceful behaviour. When the process is opaque, when Rajnath Singh announces that they have made a consensus decision, even as the parties to the consensus conspicuously stay away, we get into messy and unseemly dramas.”
So, the first lesson parties like the BJP have to learn is how to manage succession – and a clear system of inner party elections for every major leadership role is key. Parties do have election systems, but the old feudal reality ensures that only “consensus” candidates emerge on top through a process of opaque, inner party backdoor compromises.
There are other lessons the BJP and other parties need to learn from the Advani-Modi battle of nerves and backroom manoeuvre.
The second lesson is that parties must have an in-built retirement age for leaders. This need not be 60 or 65, but surely 75 is not a bad outer limit? This does not mean oldies like Advani and Manmohan Singh do not have a place in politics – they do, and they can mentor people and generate ideas for growth – but they should not play a direct leadership role. Not in a young nation such as India.
Thirdly, parties which have strong cadres must have clear rules of conduct between party organisation and government, between social organisations and political fronts. In the BJP’s case, it is fine if the RSS contributes men and material to help the party succeed, but if the Sangh tries to dictate every policy move of the party the latter cannot succeed. The same applies to the Congress, which failed in UPA-2 precisely because the party and government were not in sync. It also applies to the CPMs of the world: the party ruined Jyoti Basu’s chances of becoming the first Communist PM of the country in 1996. Parties can have their basic ideologies, but achieving anything needs compromises in government.
The fourth lesson to learn is the importance of projecting a leader. Parties such as the BJP and CPM stress collective leadership – and, as a principle, it is not wrong – but in the television age, parties must have attractive leaders to articulate a vision. A collective leadership and think-tank can emerge once a leader is chosen. Voters relate to people and not just ideology. Atal Behari Vajpayee did not have any particular ideology, but his inherent charm worked for him and helped him blunt the edges one could see in his more scrappy colleagues. The regional parties do not have this problem because they are largely dynastic like the Congress. Regional parties are created largely by charismatic leaders, and as long as the family’s clout remains, there is no need for further projection – whether it is a Naveen Patnaik in Orissa or a Mulayam Singh or Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh.
Those who argue that projecting a leader may polarise rather than unify voters (mostly this is done with reference to Modi) are both right and wrong. The purpose of projecting a leader is to convey direction – so it could polarise at times. (It isn’t as if Sonia Gandhi does not polarise – especially with her Italian origins.)
Projecting leaders can work, and it can fail. Let’s also note that the projection of Advani in 2009 did not work for the BJP. But this does not mean that projecting no leader is better. Parties have to take this gamble based on who they think is their best bet. If Modi is given charge and he fails, it is game over for him. The party can then pick up the pieces and take on a different leader the next time. Not selecting a leader is not an option anymore.
The last point is that elected leaders must have the right to their own teams. Once you accept the logic that elections are increasingly getting presidential in India, you cannot circumscribe the leader by inflicting all kinds of conditions to his power. This is why Advani’s efforts to create a parallel election committee for the assembly elections was worth junking.
The issue is not about Advani or Modi. It is about having a transparent process to manage leadership transitions.
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