India seems to be headed for a deep crisis of political leadership. The Opposition parties are set to lose an entire generation of mass leaders because of the age of the present incumbents. There are no viable replacements in sight.
Veteran Maratha leader Sharad Pawar is 78 years old. He did not contest the 2019 general election and is unlikely to contest the next one either. Samajwadi Party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav is 79 years old and wheelchair-bound. He has probably already contested the last Lok Sabha election of his long political career. Rashtriya Janata Dal supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav is relatively young at 71, but cannot contest elections because he is convicted and no longer has the ability to lead his party from jail. Janata Dal (Secular) leader H.D. Deve Gowda, a former Prime Minister, is 86 years old and has lost what was perhaps also his last election to Parliament. Sonia Gandhi, the tallest leader of the Congress, is 72, but keeps indifferent health.
Most of these are leaders who earned their spurs in mass movements or intense political battles. Even Sonia Gandhi had to fight for her survival when she was sought to be marginalised by P.V. Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesari.
Those seeking to replace them neither have the experience of mass movements not have they shown any inclination to get their hands dirty in agitational politics. In the forefront are dynasts with little to show for themselves other than personal ambition.
Consider the best of them, Rahul Gandhi, who is a fourth generation politician protecting a failing family brand. His sister, an unknown quantity up to the last general election, has shown herself to be ineffective. Her political ineptitude showed in the way she publicly castigated her party workers after her brother’s electoral defeat in the family pocket borough of Amethi. She did little to offer them hope to keep the flock together. Other Congress dynasts such as Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot, Deependra Hooda, Randeep Surjewala or even the newly-risen son, Nakul Nath, bring little to the table, besides of course their family brand.
Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav is young and glib but not comparable with the party’s founder Mulayam Singh Yadav. His relationship with socialism and social justice is tenuous. In Bihar, the Yadavs will vote for the Rashtriya Janata Dal only so long as Lalu Prasad Yadav is still associated with it and Tejashwi Yadav’s leadership is thus both derivative and precarious. Similarly, H.D. Kumaraswamy’s political capital is rapidly dwindling as his father walks towards the political sunset. M.K. Stalin, scion of the DMK’s late patriarch Karunanidhi, has fared electorally better than the others but it is unclear how much he has benefited from anti-incumbency against the ruling AIADMK. What about other regional satraps?
This general election has shown that Mayawati’s dalit politics has started to fail. Although she may be able to keep the dalit votes intact, her angular, unpredictable and self-serving politics makes other Opposition parties apprehensive about her leadership. Mamata Banerjee is a political fighter but her effectiveness is limited to her home turf of West Bengal, where she seems to be precariously perched. Moreover, she too is extremely volatile and permanently on a short fuse.
Naveen Patnaik, the leader of the Biju Janata Dal, is relatively young, at 71, but keeps bad health. The BJP perhaps tolerates him, knowing full well that in the next few years his whole political ensemble could likely fall into its lap. K. Chandrasekhar Rao of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, Jagan Mohan Reddy of the YSR Congress and N. Chandrababu Naidu are too closely identified with regional aspirations and have limited national appeal. They are also far too ideologically flexible to be counted among the anti-BJP Opposition.It would seem then that the anti-BJP platform will be populated only by inept dynasts after the present generation of Opposition stalwarts exits the national stage.
Political dynasticism inhibits the emergence of new leadership outside the family. That has been the bane of the Congress since Indira Gandhi, who after the two party splits of 1969 and 1978 decided to finish off any regional leaders who could challenge her. The period in office of the longest-serving Congress president, Sonia Gandhi (1998-2017), saw a consistent decline in new leadership. Rahul Gandhi’s reluctance to take on a ministerial role between 2004 and 2014 led to the stunting of an entire generation of new leaders who might have got ahead of him.
It was the same in the regional parties. Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav finished off all the stalwarts in their respective parties to pave the way for their sons. Outfits like the Shiv Sena are destined to be led only by Bal Thackeray’s lineal descendants, even a competent nephew will not do. Even Sharad Pawar began to promote his daughter because he felt upstaged by his nephew. It is in the nature of dynastic politics to weed out emerging leadership challenges well in time to protect the family crop.
Does this give the ruling BJP a clear advantage over the Opposition? It would seem so — at the outset. However, the BJP also faces a future leadership crisis.
Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani nurtured a whole new generation of national leaders. These ranged from Sushma Swaraj, Rajnath Singh, Pramod Mahajan, Arun Jaitley, Ananth Kumar and M. Venkaiah Naidu to Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Each one of them was a standalone leader of stature. Under the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah dispensation, however, there is only one supreme leader and everyone else has to live in his shadow, forever stunted. Even Amit Shah himself is not a mass leader and owes his power to the supreme leader.
However, the BJP has an advantage in its parliamentary numbers and time is on its side. It is possible that new leaders may emerge from its present crop of 303 MPs. However, as of now, political circumstances are not propitious for such developments. For the moment, if the Prime Minister should withdraw from politics, the leadership crisis in the BJP could be as acute as in the Opposition parties.
The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi...