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The primacy of leaders

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

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.

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 those affiliated with the government, working in their area. Only 10 per cent of the respondents could identify any. The Central Statistics Office of the ministry of statistics and programme implementation carried out an audit of non-profit institutions (NPIs). They could locate only 31 per cent of the registered organisations. In addition to the data, investigators were asked to report their views on data collection from NPIs. In virtually all the states, NPIs were hard to locate (they had shifted addresses or were simply not found); their accounts were difficult to read and reconcile; and data on membership and volunteers associated with an NPI were sparse.

Ironically, they also found that the highest number of volunteers were in organisations that were linked to international activities and law, advocacy, and politics. Civil society organisations are too limited to have significant influence on how most citizens perceive the quality of democratic politics in India. The inability of such organisations (despite their best efforts) to increase turnout in urban Bangalore in the 2014 elections indicates the limits of the reach of NGOs.

Political parties as organisations have a very thin presence on the ground in many parts of India. The National Election Studies (NES) data indicate that despite a tremendous proliferation in number of political parties (currently over 1600) and intensification of electoral contests in past few decades, party identification (or closeness to a political party) and party membership have remained low (See Table 1). Not surprisingly, party loyalty at the local level is weak and candidates often crossover to other parties. At the local level, then, electoral contests are more candidate-centred than party-centred.

This thin party penetration at the local level, along with the failure of civil society associations and the bureaucratic apparatus ensures that local level leaders continue to play an important role in the social and political life of most citizens. Anirudh Krishna, in an influential study, noted the critical role of leaders (naya netas) at the local level as providing the conduit between the citizens and the state. His findings are buttressed by data from NES 2009. In NES 2009, citizens were asked if anyone influenced their vote. Ten per cent said that local leaders influenced how they voted. Those who were influenced by local leaders were also more likely to have benefited from government policies (See Figure 1) such as MGNREGA, farm loan waivers and the midday meal scheme for school children. Those who were influenced by local leaders were more likely to be the members of political party organisations, caste and religious associations and other civil society groups. These respondents were also more likely to approach state (politicians and government officials) than those who were either influenced by their family and friends, or voted on their own.

To retain their influence, local leaders align themselves with a regional leader who may represent the interests of their community within a particular party. This regional coalition of elites of a particular community exhibits more loyalty to the leader (unless another power centre within the coalition has emerged) than the party. For example, the Lingayats in northern Karnataka seemed to be firmly behind B.S. Yeddyurappa. The Reddys in Seemandhra are with Jaganmohan Reddy, the Marathas in western Maharashtra moved out of the Congress with Sharad Pawar, the Lodhs in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh with Kalyan Singh and Uma Bharti, and a large chunk of Kurmi politicians moved out of the BSP along with Sonelal Patel to Apna Dal. These regional leaders are associated with state leaders of particular parties who tie the region to the national polity.

Given the institutional weakness of the state, the thinness of civil society and the geographically limited organisational presence of parties, the role of local elites is unlikely to fade in coming years. As long as electoral and party politics at the local and regional levels remain the domain of local leaders whose allegiance to parties is tenuous, the main job of a national leader will be to hold together this coalition elites. The main function of state leaders will remain ensuring that regional and local leaders are loyal to a party.

The imperative to hold a coalition together gives dynasties their predominant role in Indian party politics. In the Congress, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty serves as a glue to hold the Congress umbrella. Similarly, the heir apparent — either members from the political leader’s family or someone appointed by the leader in most centrist parties like the SP, BSP, RJD, TDP, DMK, AIADMK, Trinamool Congress, NCP, etc — is best placed to hold the coalition of elites supporting these parties. The primacy of leaders in the current campaign to the 2014 Lok Sabha election is, therefore, just another instalment in the theatre of leader-centred politics. The Congress is rallying behind the members of the Nehru-Gandhi family and not the prime minister who headed its government for 10 years. The BJP cadre is not demanding that Narendra Modi turn moderate. The scions or acolytes of their founders lead regional parties. Come 2019, we expect this pattern to continue.

The writers are with Lokniti-CSDS, Delhi and the Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, US

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