Underlying the anxiety gripping the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) is the concern over whether or not someone should inherit the mantle of leadership from Lalu Prasad Yadav. Considering the improbability of his contesting elections in the foreseeable future, the existential crisis confronting the RJD is that it cannot now seek power for the man who broke the hegemony of the upper castes and banished communal rioting from Bihar. Already 66 years old, is it not logical for him then to become the RJD’s patriarch and mentor his successor? Should such a successor belong to his family or be chosen from among his trusted lieutenants?
Over the next decade, these two questions will likely confront parties that are today smugly snuggled in their regional lairs. No doubt, they draw their energy from the charisma of their solitary leader, who also symbolise regional aspirations, or quests of subaltern castes, or a combination of both. Some of these leaders are ageing, yet they have desisted from naming their successors. And the few who are still relatively young don’t seem to have accounted for life’s unpredictability — a fatal mishap, for instance.
Don’t these leaders worry that the political ideas they embody could get disembowelled in their absence, and their support base gobbled up by the national parties? Why do they imitate the Congress in building their party around their family and, unlike it, encounter rampant rebellion?
The situation is particularly complicated because some of the regional leaders don’t have children. In this category are AIADMK’s J Jayalalithaa, 65, BJD leader Naveen Patnaik, 67, BSP boss Mayawati, and TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee, both 57. Then there are leaders whose children are either disinclined towards politics or in whose favour succession hasn’t been settled decisively.
Among the leaders who don’t have children, Mayawati is an exception, as she heads a cadre-based party. The BSP, therefore, has a substantial chance of surviving beyond her. Yet, at the death of BSP founder Kanshi Ram in 2006, the mounting anxiety in the party perhaps prompted Mayawati to declare in early August 1998: “He (her successor) is 18 to 20 years younger to me, is not from my family and he is from my community.” She said her successor’s name was in sealed envelopes given to two of her trusted aides.
This method reflects more the ethos of a monarchical system than a democratic one, and invariably leads to internecine feuds. Even during Mayawati’s rise to power, many of Kanshi Ram’s comrades resigned or were expelled from the party. Today, just a few of the BSP’s original founders remain by her side. Won’t the BSP become susceptible to fissures under Mayawati’s successor, particularly as in keeping his identity secret, she is squandering the chance of building a consensus around him, as Kanshi Ram had done for her and limited the impact that the exit of leaders had on the party?
The consequence of not having a structured process of choosing successors was evident in the outbreak of squabbles in the AIADMK at the death of MG Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu. Ultimately, though, Jayalalithaa triumphed, and her charisma kept intact MGR’s broad coalition of Dalits, sections of OBCs, Brahmins and what psephologists call floating voters. Tamil Nadu, however, is now witnessing a veritable churn, with castes possessing footprints in a few districts floating their own outfits, thus making it imperative for the AIADMK to have a succession plan to protect its base.
The leadership baton could be passed to Jayalalithaa’s friend Sasikala Natarajan, or to one of her relatives who have turned the AIADMK into a citadel of the powerful Thevar community. The mercurial Jayalalithaa had twice banished Sasikala from the party, but forgave her both times. Nevertheless, unlike Jayalalithaa, Sasikala and her relatives seem incapable of becoming the glue for coalescing different social groups comprising the AIADMK’s support base. The AIADMK could then be reduced to being just the party of Thevars.
The leadership void in regional outfits arises also because the reigning leader ousts potential rivals to establish a dictatorial control over them. Take Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik, who was persuaded by the lieutenants of his father, Biju Patnaik, to enter politics. Yet they were all subsequently shown the door — for instance, Bijay Mohapatra and Pyarimohan Mohapatra. Will the post-Naveen era see the old guards return to capture the party or a splintering of the BJD, more so as it is speculated that Naveen’s nephew Arun, son of Prem Patnaik, Biju’s elder son, is the likely heir apparent?
In West Bengal, a nephew is already set to blaze a trail. Twenty-five-year-old Abhishek Banerjee, son of Mamata’s elder brother Amit, has been given the reins of Trinamool Congress Yuva, perhaps in the hope of acquainting him with the mechanisms of a political party. The possibility of the Trinamool and the Congress merging together, say, 10 years hence depends on whether Abhishek emerges as a leader worthy enough to succeed Mamata. For the JD(U), though, there is no such comfort — Nitish Kumar’s only son, Nishant, hasn’t been, as of now, inclined to politics. Who else then? Would Sharad Yadav be acceptable to the party’s mainstay — the Kurmi-Koeri castes?
Sharad Pawar and M Karunanidhi are grooming one from their families as their successor, as is Chandrababu Naidu, who has eased his son Nara Lokesh into the TDP. But there also lurks NT Rama Rao’s grandson, NTR Junior, who has stepped back from politics to concentrate on films. A struggle between Lokesh and NTR Junior could mimic the successful rebellion Naidu led against NTR, his father-in-law. Mulayam Singh Yadav has successfully managed the succession in his party, but it is debatable whether UP CM Akhilesh Yadav’s uncles will forever remain amenable to accepting his leadership. Indeed, many of these regional parties may see splits similar to that of the Shiv Sena.
It is bewildering why the Congress, which adheres to the dynastic principle of succession, doesn’t experience similar convulsions. Perhaps it is because the Congress under Indira Gandhi perfected the system of patronage — at the death or retirement of MPs, their seats were assigned to their children and relatives. Thus, a mechanism was created through which satellite families orbit around the principal family, the Gandhis, with both benefiting from the symbiotic relationship. The former were not allowed to nurture an appeal powerful enough to win seats in different pockets of India. No wonder, over the past four decades, the Congress has been organised around the principle of the Gandhis’ charisma. (The system, it can be argued, has begun to falter as the pan-India appeal of the Congress has diminished appreciably since its halcyon days.)
By contrast, outfits confined to a state emerged in response to ideas of regional identity, pressure from subaltern groups to have a share in power, and social justice gathering momentum. These ideas challenged the Congress’ hegemony of the past — and, over the past two decades, put the brakes on the BJP’s rise as well. No doubt, some of the regional leaders personify these ideas. Yet these ideas can be sustained through constant renewal and fresh articulations to attract the electorate.
Charisma is nebulous, in contrast to the ideas of, say, social justice and federalism. The voter gravitates towards those considered most suitable to turn these ideas into reality, rather than repose faith in the children of leaders who first voiced them. These ideas are also democratic and progressive in nature, and harp on change. The culture these ideas spawn in the parties propagating them leads to resistance against the leader who wishes to establish an authoritarian control over his or her party, or transfer its leadership to his or her children. This resistance succeeds in regional outfits because their turf is infinitely smaller than that of the Congress, thus enabling the rebel to build a new caste combination to vanquish the leader.
Indeed, the regional leaders, particularly those who have no children, need to restructure their party organisations, invoking not charisma as the organising principle but the ideas they have come to symbolise; they need to turn their organisations from closed monopolies of a few, which they are now, into competitive and open parties. There’s too much at stake to let these parties become their leaders’ fiefdoms.