Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.
This piece of mine was published today in Mail Today (pdf link).
The US primaries have been so much fun to follow over the last couple of months. The candidates of each party have gone from state to state mingling with people, answering questions, making the same speeches over and over again, revealing themselves, attacking others, trying to project themselves as something they aren’t even as 24-hour coverage allows them no time away from the flashbulbs, talking policy, spewing spin, and sometimes, rarely, letting the mask slip to reveal the man or woman behind the brand. There has been heartbreak and drama and tears and bravado and raw, naked ambition. All this to elect, not the president of the United States of America, but the candidates of the two main political parties, which are as democratic as the nation they aim to serve.
Contrast that with India.
When the time comes to select the leader of the Congress Party, can you imagine Sonia Gandhi going from town to town trying to persuade Congress workers why she is the best person to lead them? Can you imagine LK Advani in a televised debate against Narendra Modi and Uma Bharati? Can you imagine the elite Politburo putting Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechuri in front of Communist Party workers and saying, “right, choose now.”
There is a cliché that India is the world’s largest democracy. Technically, that is true - there are more voters here than anywhere else in the world. But none of the parties we have to choose from are democratic within. They are feudal beasts.
Ironically, it began thus. Just before India became independent, the Congress Party had to choose a president who would then go on to become India’s first prime minister. That leader was not elected from the bottom, but appointed from the top - Mahatma Gandhi chose Jawaharlal Nehru, and got the other possible contenders, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, to endorse his choice.
In India’s early decades, the Congress enjoyed a large majority by virtue of being a driving force behind India’s independence. Meanwhile, within the Congress, Nehru consolidated his power. Patel died in 1950, C Rajagopalachari, a dissenter when it came to Nehru’s economic policies, was marginalised, and Nehru faced no challenges while he was alive.
When Nehru died in 1964, no one could have foretold that the Congress would become a feudal party. The main contenders for the prime ministership, K Kamaraj, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Morarji Desai, were all popular leaders in their own right. Shastri got the job, but didn’t live long. Indira Gandhi was appointed prime minister by a group of party heavyweights who thought they could control her. Heh.
A sycophant of Indira Gandhi, DK Barooah, would say years later, “Indira is India and India is Indira.” Well, Indira certainly was the Congress. She took over the party, filled the key positions with her sycophants, and even ran a dictatorship for a couple of years, aided by her son, Sanjay. The Congress became dependent on the charisma of her family and the brand value of her family name. After she died, Rajiv Gandhi took over. After he died, his Italian non-politician widow, Sonia Gandhi refused the job. She eventually returned to it, and her son Rahul is being groomed to take over.
India, meanwhile, has moved on from the Congress. For such a heterogenous country to be so dominated by one party was an aberration, and it will never happen again. Politics in India is now local. People choose their MPs based on local considerations, sometimes at the constituency level, and sometimes at the level of the state. National trends have ceased to matter. The coalitions that come to power after an election may change, but all talk of “the will of the people” is naïve generalization.
There is no more something like a national mandate. Hundreds of millions of voters vote for hundreds of millions of different reasons. You can spin these reasons, but your spin affects nothing but the gossip of the chattering classes and newspaper columns by pundits.
One would imagine that if all politics is local, parties are forced to be democratic. Well, here’s an exercise: Go out and try to be a member of the Congress Party. Or the BJP. Or the Shiv Sena. See what happens.
Our political parties are still ruled by closed elites, driving policies from the top rather than having their ear to the ground and listening to the people. Yes, the Congress has lost and lost and lost in the time that Rahul Gandhi has been active. But it is hard to say that the cause of this is the absence of inner-party democracy. Which party is democratic today?
All our politics is identity politics. Politicians go out there claiming to represent different minority groups - for all groups are minority groups in our countries, even Hindus, split by caste and region and language - and get people to vote for them for visceral, emotional reasons. The loyalties they evoke are tribal ones. I am a Dalit and I will look after all Dalits. Or I am a Yadav and I will look after the interest of all Yadavs. Or I am not a Muslim, but I will fight the BJP on the behalf of Muslims, and am the most viable alternative to the BJP out there.
And so on.
So naturally our politics is then feudal. Kanshi Ram becomes larger than life within his party and the groups that feel such tribal loyalty towards him, so his chosen successor Mayawati inherits that mantle. Their parties are their fiefdoms. You will never, I guarantee you, see Mayawati standing for elections within her party.
India has among the oldest active politicians in the world. Manmohan Singh - nominated to his post by Congress owner Sonia, and not elected to it, for all practical purposes - leads the government at 75; LK Advani, the leader of the opposition, is 80. Contrast these leaders with Gordon Brown (56), Nicolas Sarkozy (53) and Angela Merkel (53). Barack Obama (46) is an embryo compared to our leaders.
The reason for this is obvious. In the absence of robust, inner-party democracy, young leaders find it hard to rise within the system - unless, like Rahul Gandhi, Sachin Pilot, Manvendra Singh, Akhilesh Yadav, Omar Abdullah and Jyotiraditya Scindia, they’re some bigwig’s son taking charge of an inheritance. The old fogeys stay in charge, consolidate their positions, and promote their sycophants. Is there hope for change, then?
I would say there is. We are a maturing democracy, and we are also a growing economy. As we open up to the world, we will become less insecure about our place in it, and more inclusive of new ideas and values. Identity politics will slowly become less pervasive, and people will demand more from their politicians. Their politicians will have to adapt to them.
The political parties who don’t listen to market signals will wither away. The ones that do will profit. And one day, I wishfully think, Indian parties will have elections as vibrant and democratic as the two large parties in America. Would you like to see that?
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Check out more essays by me in my essays and Op-Eds archive.
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6 down: Order beginning with ‘A’ (12)