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Congress (R) vs BJP (M)

Two parties at odds with their leaders. Two leaders with a larger gameplan.

Updated: March 26, 2014 8:41 am

Two parties at odds with their leaders. Two leaders with a larger gameplan.

First, it was about Murli Manohar Joshi. Then came L.K. Advani’s turn. Both were made to acquiesce to the wisdom of the new leadership of the BJP. Jaswant Singh is the latest to join the club of famous leaders to feel slighted by the party.

The trouble over candidate selection within the Congress has not yet thrown up drama on that scale. But the Congress too is witnessing a tussle everywhere between Rahul Gandhi’s nominees and the preferences of party veterans. The scale and shape of these intra-party tensions may differ, but the Congress and BJP have more in common than just an absence of established procedures for candidate selection — that, of course, is a critical aspect of decision-making for a party in the Indian context.

That lacuna exists in almost every party. The newest entrant, the Aam Aadmi Party, has not escaped this problem either. But the headline-grabbing problems within the BJP and Congress cannot be explained just by the lack of “democratic” procedures. Something deeper is happening in both parties.

Not too long ago, the Congress was led by its president, Sonia Gandhi. Only on the eve of the elections were de facto powers given to party vice president Rahul Gandhi. He could have become the president. Instead, it was decided that the current president should remain but power would shift to Rahul. Similarly, in early 2013, the BJP had nominated Narendra Modi as the party’s campaign chief. Subsequently, he was nominated as the party’s candidate for prime minister. Like Rahul, he is the de facto leader of the BJP.

There is, of course, a BJP president, but not many would credit him with decision-making powers. Thus, behind the disgruntlements in both parties, there is another similarity — the rise of a new power centre within either party. Moreover, in both cases, this shift has occurred rather close to the elections. So other leaders, as well as party cadres, are unsure of the expectations of the new leadership, and of the equations among various leaders and factions within the party.

But more than just uncertain equations with the new leaderships, the Congress and BJP are looking like parties at odds with their leaders. Ironically, neither can go into the elections without these leaders. Without Rahul, the Congress cannot hope to face the tide of anti-UPA sentiment. Without Modi, the BJP cannot think of rejuvenating the party. But the leaders seem to have larger gameplans. Both Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, besides trying to win the elections for their parties, clearly intend to redefine the parties they lead, reorient the cadres to new patterns of behaviour and do away with some older leaders. For his part, Rahul has made clear his intention to make the party more transparent and youth oriented. For quite some time, his leadership has made senior and old-style politicians and “party operators” uncomfortable. It is not just new faces that he wants to bring to the fore, but new ways of doing politics — ways that are less dependent on local strongmen and/ or local clientelist networks. Modi too wants to carve out a new BJP. This new BJP will have to be entirely dependent on him and his image, it will have to address the upwardly mobile sections of the population that are impatient with economic stagnation and it will have to believe that the Gujarat model is replicable everywhere in India. Modi is also aiming at a generation change within the BJP, and at giving cultural nationalism a new lease of life in a modernist garb.

But let us not engage with their respective ideas about reshaping their parties. What is pertinent is that here are two leaders who have taken over their parties only in the recent past — almost on election eve. They want their imprint on candidate selection and the election campaign. But they probably want something more than that as well — a new Congress and a new BJP. And both the Congress and BJP are uncomfortable with this intra-party shift. The discomfort stems not so much from frustrations over nominations as from the gap between the leader and some sections of the old party.

The issue of timing apart, the disconnect between leader and party is not new. Nehru, through most of his post-Independence leadership of the Congress, lived with this disconnect. The Congress wanted him as star campaigner, as legitimiser of the power aspirations of party workers, as someone who could give moral meaning to their personal ambitions. But the Congress, even in the Fifties and Sixties, did not exactly follow Nehru or obey him. He had to cajole, conspire and compete. He took this in his stride because, despite his unchallenged position in the Congress, he too was dependent on the party organisation to translate his popularity into votes and electoral victories. Indira Gandhi, more impatient, took a different route. She constructed two connections to deal with the party-leader disconnect.

One, she established a populist connect with the “masses”. By doing so, she converted the elections (of 1971) into a mandate for her personal leadership. Two, she built a bureaucratic connect, ensuring that the state apparatus would be totally subservient to her. That made the party redundant. That way, other leaders of her party became entirely dependent on her, not just for electoral victory but for political survival.

In their frustrations with their respective parties, Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi are also presented with these two alternatives. Because of his limited connect with the masses, Rahul has to opt for the Nehruvian choice of fighting with and tolerating the party. Modi, on the other hand, is a leader in a hurry. He has discovered that he has a mission. Those who believe they have a mission can find easy justifications for bypassing the institutions they benefited from.

Modi has also discovered the power of the demagoguery that connects him with the crowds. So, he is in a position to sidetrack the party, the old guard, the critics and the competitors. He is an Indira Gandhi in the making for the BJP. Like her, he would not mind reshaping the BJP and like the Congress then, the BJP would not mind Modi’s towering image, since that image is likely to bring the whiff of power to the party.

In the long run, Nehru’s exasperation resulted in the survival of the Congress party (however chaotic), whereas Indira Gandhi’s success produced the dismantling of the Congress. If history is a guide, are we going to witness, in the failure of Rahul, the survival of the Congress that all of us would love to despise? And by the same logic, if Modi succeeds in ensuring the leader-party connect, will that bring in a power machine that we might have to dread?

The writer teaches political science at the University of Pune

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