Wednesday, Sep 28, 2022

How the party withers away

Surrounded by scheming courtiers,leaders lose touch with reality and the movement’s founding beliefs

The fundamental reason

This is the crucial factor: the decision to reform or not has come to vest in the hands of the very persons who will be finished were the reform to take place — recall the two examples we encountered at the beginning: the civil service that stymies every commission’s recommendations,and the legislators who do not rectify the manifest lacuna in the law which allows those convicted of murder to continue as members. Hence the paradox: the stronger that the leader and his circle appear,the weaker the organisation.

Factions mushroom

As ‘power’ now flows solely from the Leader,factions sprout even within this circle — tiny though it is — around him. All the more so because the only glue now is lucre,pelf. The courtiers are now an ever-changing kaleidoscope of ‘tactical alliances’: three join,get the fourth; then two of the three join and get the first. To each,the nearest neighbour is the greatest enemy. At every turn,each of the sudden allies prides himself on being clever,he preens himself on being successful. In fact,even as they succeed against each other,they are undermining the esteem of the people and the workers of the party itself for the circle as well as the leader who presides over it.

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The leader frowns,but inwardly foments the factions; at the least,he does not scotch them. As each subaltern jostles to be closer to him,he feels important,indeed he feels indispensable — “They are not yet mature enough to manage on their own.” He preens himself as arbiter,as the dispenser of favour and frown.

But the jostling,the ever-shifting alliances and ruptures among the courtiers break through the curtains of the court. Three consequences follow. The character of the leader is soon evident to all: that he is the one who is fomenting factions,that he is the one who is playing favourites. Second,the courtiers defame each other successively: soon enough,people know enough about each of them to believe the worst of all of them. Third,both because the leader has been seen for what he is and because each of the subalterns has shown himself to be but a schemer and plotter,the whole — the so-called party — loses the esteem of the people.

As factions fight,as subalterns spread stories about each other,the leader moans,“The party was never like this… When we began,we toiled without any expectation at all that we would ever be in power. We just toiled. Today,everyone expects rewards,office,perks. The simplicity of our leader of the time,his utter selflessness,his humility…And this business of factions,and backbiting — it was unheard of.”

Each time he invokes that distant leader,he reminds the listeners how far he has himself come from that sainted person. He reminds listeners how,under his direct stewardship,the party has been converted from being a crusade to becoming an instrument for his aggrandisement and that of his chosen handful.

The slide accelerates


Cleverness in the leader produces cunning and deviousness among his henchmen. Cleverness,cunning,deviousness at the top produce feigned loyalty among followers. The followers stick to the party only in the expectation that their chance to grab the goodies will also come one day. But as the party suffers successive defeats,that prospect recedes. Seeing that this is not the vehicle to lucre that they had imagined,the followers lose enthusiasm. Chunks break away. To other parties — where,of course,the same sequence is in progress.

That the same sequence is being enacted in other parties makes it that much more difficult to arrest it in this party. The rival party is fielding a criminal. Only a more audacious,a more resourceful criminal can defeat him. As winning the requisite numbers is all,those who urge that tickets be given only to persons of integrity and competence are easily shoved aside as unpractical ‘idealists’ — in the very party that had been founded and nurtured by idealists,the word becomes a pejorative.

Such adoption of what is common to others is triply harmful to a party that grew out of a movement,that has sworn fidelity to ideals. To start with,it loses its claim to being different from the others. Next,its culture,its very character changes. And third,if by chance and for reasons that have little to do with its new character,it wins,its members are not able to handle the complex tasks of governance — any more than those ‘boors in office’ were able to manage the states they founded after destroying Rome.


These accidental victories,however,have consequences for the party itself also. The victories come about from time to time,for reasons that are independent of the drift in the party — the strength in an area of the candidates as individuals,the particularly perfidious conduct of opponents. But the consequence is that the leader and his coterie feel vindicated in their ways. Those who had been warning of what will befall the party should it continue in the direction it has been proceeding are now even more easily put down as the perpetual whiners,the disgruntled,frustrated alarmists,the congenital pessimists.

Even as the party wins the odd contest,it continues to lose that vital intangible — esteem among the people. It is seen as being more and more like any other conglomeration. Every memory of the movement from which it had originated,every memory of its original leaders only reinforces this inference. The party no longer claims that it is different from the others. On the contrary,the other parties hurl that erstwhile claim at it — as a taunt.

The party which was a movement has become routine. Routinisation robs every abhiyaan it launches of meaning. It dwarfs everyone. How true the lesson that historians hold out:

“Early Roman history has been described as the history of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. In the later Empire it took an extraordinary man to do anything at all except carry on a routine; and,as the Empire had devoted itself for centuries to the breeding and training of ordinary men,the extraordinary men of its last ages — Stilicho,Aetius,and their like — were increasingly drawn from the Barbarian world.”*

But the other parties are enacting the same sequence. They don’t have any extraordinary men either that this party may swear in. Yet something has to be done to shore up its fortunes. The party knows its own too well. They have been around,and have not brought victory. Those in rival parties may not be extraordinary,but they have the attraction of being in other parties. The party,therefore,inducts persons who are like members and leaders of the parties it has hitherto denounced. Better still,it inducts persons who are still members and leaders of those parties. To little avail. The entrants are seen as turncoats. That the party’s claim to being different is fake is reinforced. Those who have served it loyally for decades are incensed.

The clever spinners


The leader,cocooned,does not notice the ground slipping away,in part because he is by now surrounded by clever courtiers. The moment a victory turns up,they are able to produce a dozen reasons to show that it is due to the leader,and,incidentally,themselves. The moment a defeat occurs,they are able to produce two dozen reasons to prove that it is due to others. And another score why the defeat is due to special,transient,exceptional,local circumstances,and,therefore,is no cause for worry.

The party’s electoral losses resume. They accelerate. Fewer and fewer new recruits join the organisation. Those who join,join for reasons other than the ideas and ideals for which that party or organisation once stood — they do so,for instance,in the belief that doing so will get them jobs,posts,contracts.


The leader and his circle could easily see the portent,if only they would. Are only the already-converted coming to our meetings? Are they coming spontaneously,or do wehave to bus them? How many uncommitted,new listeners are coming to our meetings? Indeed,the leader and his circle do not have to go even that far. They just have to look only at their own diaries: how many persons outside our circle have we met in the last week? But they don’t see. The organisation is busy talking to itself. Those within the circle are busy knifing each other. And the leader? He is enveloped in an impenetrable fog of self-satisfaction: the day’s photo-opportunity,the day’s conclave,the day’s meeting of the ‘core group’,the day’s meeting of ‘office-bearers’,the day’s meeting of ‘allies’ — what a fulfilling day…

The party stops hearing those outside the party. The leader stops hearing those outside his circle — of weak men and henchmen.


Many factors continue to obscure the fact that the ground is shifting from underneath the party. For a while,to cite one factor,the ‘core constituency’ continues to support it: out of habit; out of loyalty to the old ideals; out of an obstinate consistency. But the leader and his circle reassure themselves,“Our core constituency is intact.”

They draw an operational inference: in the belief that doing so will solidify the support of this core constituency,they reinforce earlier slogans so as to demonstrate that they remain committed to their original ideology. But each time they proclaim the slogans,they remind listeners — all the more so,this core constituency as it remains truly committed to what those slogans had promised — that,when they had the opportunity,they did nothing for those promises to materialise. Regurgitating the slogans thus does little to mobilise the core constituency. On the other hand,it consolidates the opponents. And another thing has happened in the meantime: a host of new elements have entered the arena — for instance,the young. Each time the leader and his coterie proclaim those old slogans — ‘socialism’ of the Congress; ‘Hindutva’ of the BJP; ‘Marxism-Leninism’ of the assorted Communists — they remind these new entrants that they and their party are an obsolete bunch. And then,suddenly,one day,a day like any other,that ‘core constituency’ also walks away.

Kafirs and apostates

At each turn,well-wishers counsel reform,they counsel that the party change course. But by now the leader is the party,most certainly in his eyes. Therefore,he takes every suggestion to be a rebuke,an assault on him personally for conducting the affairs of the party as he has been conducting them. When the suggestion-which-is-censure comes from an outsider,the leader rejects it as the ranting of a kafir,of one who has never believed,who has never committed himself to the cause. When it comes from one who undeniably has been part of the crusade,the leader dismisses it as being the rant of a murtad,an apostate — as the rant of one ‘who has crossed the barricade’. His reflex is to insulate himself even more into an even tighter circle.

The leader whose example used to be the goad; whose mere presence induced attention; whose glance,whose whispered suggestion used to ensure compliance,he now stands on office,on rank,on the years he has spent ‘in the service of the party’. He demands respect — a sure sign that he no longer commands it. Another sign,a sure one that what,in the infinitely vaster context of civilisations,Arnold Toynbee had called ‘the creative minority’ — the small group that brought the civilisation into being,and presided over its flourishing — has become ‘the dominant minority’ — the small group that chokes,and presides over the ultimate disintegration of the civilisation.

The circle becomes tighter and more and more homogenous,more and more subservient and sycophantic.

As the leader and his cohorts move within this ever-narrower circle,they see less and less of what is going on without the circle,they hear less and less. This blindness and loss of hearing are brought about all the more swiftly the more hierarchical is the organisation — for the greater the respect for hierarchy,the more the leader and his circle are not just looked up to,they are venerated,they are treated as oracles,as paragons of virtue and dedication; and the more disciplined the organisation is — for the more disciplined it is,the less do subordinates speak the whole truth to their seniors,the less they think for themselves: “Sir,hamare yahaan to soochnaa aayi,sochnaa band,” a stalwart once explained to me.

(To be concluded)

The writer is a BJP MP in the Rajya Sabha

* Arnold Toynbee,A Study of History,abridgement of Volumes VII-X,D.C. Somervell,OUP,London,1957,p. 123.

First published on: 16-07-2009 at 12:26:56 am
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