Friday, Dec 19, 2014

The primacy of leaders

Parties are conical spirals with a national leader on top, and the main job of a national leader is to hold together this diverse collection of state, regional and local elites. Parties are conical spirals with a national leader on top, and the main job of a national leader is to hold together this diverse collection of state, regional and local elites.
Written by Pradeep Chhibber , Rahul Verma | Posted: April 24, 2014 3:22 am | Updated: April 24, 2014 3:23 am

This election campaign is dominated by individuals rather than ideas. Why this is not likely to change come 2019.

Commentators are ruing the fact that the electoral contest in 2014 is centred on individuals rather than issues. At the heart of the current campaign is the BJP’s Narendra Modi and, despite the Congress party’s protestations, its leaders Rahul and Sonia Gandhi are also at the core of their campaign pitch. Earlier elections in India have also centred on party leaders. The elections of 1957 and 1962 revolved around Jawaharlal Nehru, the 1971 and 1977 elections were dominated by the personality of Indira Gandhi, Indira Gandhi’s assassination overshadowed the 1984 Lok Sabha elections, and the BJP focused its campaign from 1996 to 1999 to some extent on Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The impact of these leaders is attributed to their charisma, oratorical skills and a capability to enthuse the party cadre.

An overlooked role of national leaders is to build and hold together a coalition of state leaders and local level political and social elites who, in turn, mobilise votes for them. The ethnic heterogeneity of India, and the weakly institutionalised nature of the Indian state, gives local leaders significant latitude. Parties are conical spirals with a national leader on top, and the main job of a national leader is to hold together this diverse collection of state, regional and local elites.

Why are local leaders so important in India? Citizens in modern electoral democracies interact with the state through three political institutions — bureaucracy, civil society associations and political parties. The implementation of state policies is dependent on these three institutions. However, these institutions have a thin presence on the ground, especially in the hinterland. The Indian state is woefully understaffed to carry out its various functions. Not surprisingly, citizens report that the bureaucratic apparatus not only fails them but also ridicules and intimidates them.

Despite more than three million non-profit organisations, civil society groups have failed to connect citizens with the state in a sustained manner. The government estimates that there are approximately 3.3 million non-profit associations in India, or one for every 400 citizens. It is understandable that the presence of so many NGOs is seen as evidence of a vibrant civil society. But there is some debate about what these NGOs really do, and about whether they are indeed providing individuals with the resources they need to engage meaningfully in democratic politics. There are also some doubts about whether so many NGOs are truly active.

A national survey conducted in 2002 asked respondents whether there were organisations, other than continued…

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