It is the peculiar dignity of our democracy that anyone can aspire to be Prime Minister. You can be in your thirties or in your eighties. You don’t even have to be elected to the Lower House. You can come from the most marginalised communities and mobilise a mass base. You can appeal to regional pride to stake a claim. You can simply position yourself as compromise candidate counting on the fact that what may matter in the end is that other strong leaders will find a weak Prime Minister more acceptable than going along with another strong leader. In short,there are many routes to office.
One thing is increasingly becoming clear. It is unlikely that a mature parliamentary democracy will have room for leaders with commanding authority like Nehru or even Indira Gandhi. In our zeal to elevate Vajpayee to charismatic status in 2004,we forgot the elementary fact that we are a parliamentary democracy,not a presidential system. In our system,it is highly unlikely that single individuals can have a decisive impact on the outcome of elections. The circumstances under which extraordinary leaders are produced are rare indeed. Nehru and his colleagues were the products of a mass movement spanning decades,and this sort of social mobilization is unlikely to be replicated in the course of normal politics. Indira Gandhi was as much an artifact of a single party dominance that is also unlikely to be replicated in the near future. And even Atal Bihari Vajpayee acquired the status that he had after nearly five decades in politics.
The end of charismatic politics is exemplified by the fact that after Rajiv Gandhi we have had a series of prime ministers who by any measure of popular charismatic authority,would fall short: Narasimha Rao,Deve Gowda,Inder Gujral and now Manmohan Singh. These leaders are all artifacts of some structural features of our political system. In this political system,it is very difficult for national leaders to emerge — for a variety of reasons. It takes an immensely long time even to build support in your regional base,and just at the moment when leaders are ready to leverage their regional base into national power,it is likely that they will suffer the pains of rejection from their own core constituency. The volatility of electoral politics makes the prospects of stable leaderships slimmer. It is proving very difficult for any chief minister or regional big boss to transcend the boundaries of their state.
Second,gaining acceptance at a national level is not simply a matter of having popular appeal. It is also a matter of persuading popular leaders from other regions to go along with you. And historically there has been a pattern where regionally powerful leaders distrust other regionally powerful leaders,cutting them down to size or undermining them. That is one of the reasons why the heavyweights in Congress could not successfully challenge the dynasty after the demise of Nehru; and even during the nineties,the Sharad Pawars and Rajesh Pilots of the Congress could not joint together to mount a collective offensive against the power of the Gandhi family.
With regional leaders more or less cancelling each other out,there is a great demand for someone who appears neutral. In many ways it is the greatest asset of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty that they are not seen to be from anywhere in particular and can therefore belong everywhere. The initial support for Indira Gandhi came from the fact that each regional faction of the Congress thought that she would be more amenable to his or her interests than of any rival. It is a different matter that Indira Gandhi could deftly use power to cut them all to size,one by one,in a master strategy of divide and rule.
Post Rajiv Gandhi,we have had prime ministers whose main attraction is that they are not political giants in their own right. It is easier to get consensus around them. But none of them has been able to use power to make their own position unassailable,or their authority unquestioned. In fact,it is likely that a premium on consensus also prevents the emergence of strong decisive leaders.
A third feature that makes the emergence of strong leaders difficult is the fact that there is no intra-party democracy. In some ways most political parties,whether it is the Congress,or the RJD,SP or BSP,have a system of leadership by appointment. One of the ways in which leaders emerge is if there is free and open contestation at levels of the political party. Intra-party democracy sets clear rules about how one goes about becoming a party leader,at any level of the party. It is difficult to become a significant party leader at the national level if it is not clear what the rules are for enabling you to become one. Intra-party democracy creates a culture where politicians have to routinely court their party members across the length and breadth of the country; it ensures that those who rise to the top in a particular party at least have a mass base within it.
But at the moment,the ability to rise within a political party is determined by the preferences of the entrenched leadership. And this leadership,more likely than not,is going to ensure that it is never challenged. The result is a tendency to reward loyalty,rather than encourage independence. Parties create structures where it is all but certain that any potential challengers will be cut to size before they become a threat. The odds are,therefore,stacked in favour of existing leaderships.
Because of the premium on loyalty,political parties do not function as a school for creating new leaders; they serve as mechanisms for producing loyalists. It is small wonder that we have a political culture,for example,in the Congress party,where loyal hangers-on populate the top rather than independent-minded individuals. If political parties continue to be mechanisms where loyalty is the way to the top,you are unlikely to get strong leaders. If our political culture encourages obsequiousness,this is not because of some feudal hangover; it is an artifact of the institutional design.
Ironically,the so-called ethnification of the party system will also make it more difficult for national leaders to emerge. Politics in India has become profoundly representative and often we judge it by nothing else but its ability to be representative. But the function of leaders in such a system is to be a reflection of their constituents their social base or regional identity. The more they transcend these affiliations,the more they run the risk of not performing the representative functions that brought them into prominence in the first place. Most politicians who rise on the backs of a social identity face this dilemma,and most have taken the safer route of nurturing their core constituencies. But this creates conditions whereby few leaders will be willing to transcend their own social base.
Structural conditions,therefore,make it very difficult for powerful leaders to emerge or endure in Indian politics. This may not be such a bad thing,in so far as it inoculates us against the allure of charisma. Even the holding pattern that the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty is able to perform is less — at this point at any rate — a function of obvious charisma,and more because it helps break a deadlock that Indian politics is routinely likely to throw up. But there is also a danger that if this vacuum grows deeper,there will be more yearning for strong-arm figures. We have to see. There is no guarantee that powerful leaders,from the dynasty or outside,cannot emerge in the future,but if the analysis given above is correct,this is likely to happen either under very exceptional circumstances,or by an extraordinary act of political imagination. Lalu Yadav,in a typical moment of insight recently,said that if India were a presidential form of government,he would be a popularly elected leader. This was a way of saying that democracy may have little to do with who will be our next Prime Minister. This is a such a wonderfully open system.