Transitions in Indian politics have never been smooth. In fact, they have caused a lot of fury, unhappiness and divisions among various parties. J. Jayalalithaa, who had been the face of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) since the early 90s, had never appointed a second-in-command. Though many may say Ottakara Panneerselvam fit the bill, one wonders whether a ‘number 2’ really mattered back then. The discussion on who will lead the party now has spurred a debate over the politics of succession in general.
In politics, particularly Indian ‘rajneeti’, the demi-god status that some of our ‘netas’ enjoy is something that is known to all. While Mr Panneerselvam has been anointed the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, the ultimate queen and the leader of the AIADMK is said to be Jayalalithaa’s confidante Sasikala Natarajan (a.k.a. Chinnamma). But Ms Sasikala has never contested a single election and had never been appointed the second-in-command by Amma (i.e. Jayalalithaa). A faction within the AIADMK wants Chinnamma to be the party chief. It may be recalled that when Jayalalithaa was in jail, she didn’t let Ms Sasikala run the government; instead, she handed over the reins to Mr Panneerselvam. But with Ms Sasikala performing the last rites of Jayalalithaa, her long-time companion, things became clear — Chinnamma will be calling the shots in the AIADMK.
Not long ago in Maharashtra, when Shiv Sena supremo, Bal Thackeray decided to anoint his son Uddhav as the heir to his party, instead of nephew Raj, the party got divided. A disgruntled Raj broke away from the Sena to launch his own party: the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). Needless to say, the sainiks were confused as to who their leader was, since it was Raj who was seen with the senior Thackeray, while Uddhav was busy honing his skills in photography.
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What happened in Orissa after the death of Biju Patnaik is no different: the Biju Janata Dal, decided to anoint Naveen Patnaik, a reluctant politician, sidelining many seniors. Similarly, Parkash Badal, though very old still, is holding the chair, as his son remains a deputy and is heir apparent. The Shiromani Akali Dal, for a party that is said to be the outcome of a movement, is now centred on a single family — the Badals.
In Uttar Pradesh, the Yadav clan has been fighting a bitter battle within the family. Anurag Chaturvedi, a senior journalist and former editor, claims that our political parties aren’t democratic, but feudal. “You have one person who rewards (party members) and he’s the same one who punishes them. This is the tribal instinct, not democracy. The next leader is chosen from the family, and not on the basis of merit,” he said.
Why blame Indians alone? In the United States, the Democrats had picked Hillary Clinton as their candidate for the presidential polls and she is the wife of former President Bill Clinton. In America, the senior Bush and junior Bush have ruled the nation. One may argue that voters were mature enough to reject feudalism this time by voting for Donald Trump instead of Ms Clinton, but this sparks off a debate that has no conclusion. Coming back to India, the only solution that Congress leaders have found for every problem is to get a Gandhi. When the likes of Sitaram Kesari were locked in bathrooms to elect a Gandhi for the president’s post, break-up was inevitable. Sharad Pawar floated his own party (the Nationalist Congress Party) and leaders like P.A. Sangma quit the Congress. Even today, while party vice-president Rahul Gandhi is being prompted to lead the party, his failures at times causes Congress leaders to go knocking on Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s door. “Politicians’ feuds aren’t for any political good and they aren’t part of an agenda that is for the betterment of the people. It appears that they are no less than a fight for property, the division of which is for personal gain,” said Mr Chaturvedi.
In Karnataka, when H.D. Deve Gowda decided to make his son, Kumaraswamy, the chief, senior leaders quit, including Siddaramaiah — who is now the chief minister of the state from the Congress party. The stories of leaders like Sharad Pawar, and M. Karunanidhi are very different. Mr Pawar (aka Saheb) is caught in a strange dilemma. He wants his daughter, Supriya Sule, to lead the party but his nephew Ajit Pawar (aka Ajitdada) wields a lot of power in the NCP. Ms Sule has managed to become a member of Parliament, but her ‘big brother’ isn’t allowing her to get a foothold in state-level politics. The succession here is in limbo. Till the last Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chief Karunanidhi wasn’t ready to let go of his claim to the chief minister’s chair, but his fondness for his son M.K. Stalin came out in the open. This has divided the Karunanidhi family — brothers Stalin and M.K. Alagiri, and to some extent their sister Kanimozhi too. Politics, particularly Indian ‘rajneeti’ is one thing that can unite foes and divide families. Ditto with Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav, who is in a quandary with his big brood! Many of his children aspire to become chief minister.
While most of the examples discussed above are of leaders with families, our country has many parties which are nothing but one-man armies. Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress, Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, or for that matter Naveen Patnaik’s BJD, are led by unmarried leaders. Many claim that the future of the BSP after Mayawati is bleak, as she has not appointed her deputy, unlike her mentor Kanshi Ram. For that matter, Ms Banerjee (aka Didi) has pinned her hopes on her nephew Abhishek. But will he manage to take on the party’s heavyweights to pave his own way? Mr Patnaik has a strong team, but will a (Jay) Panda be acceptable to the party cadre?
But why the rush to have only a Thackeray, or a Yadav, or a Badal to lead the party? Answer: Because voters in India still see their leader as a messiah who will solve their problems. Remember the Narendra Modi phenomenon, where everyone voted for one man, which worked in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP has rarely been dependent on one person. When Atal Behari Vajpayee was ageing the party turned to L.K. Advani and then Mr Modi. The same thing happened in the Congress after Indira Gandhi’s death: Rajiv Gandhi appeared as the only option, or for that matter Indira Gandhi after the Nehru-Shashtri era. Many a time, the surname is what stops opponents from growing and keeps factions under control. It is a double-edged sword.
Political commentator Nilu Damle put it like this: “It was once said that even a lamp post would get elected if Jawaharlal Nehru were to endorse it. If a lamp post could go to the legislature, no wonder Indira Gandhi could effortlessly become the president of the Congress party, and subsequently the Prime Minister of India. Talk to anybody in the Congress, AIADMK or the Shiv Sena, they will say this is the way all political parties work in this country. Policy, programme, ideologies are not important, it’s the dynasty or the proximity to the power centre that matters.”