The pangs in birthing new political leaders : The Tribune India

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The pangs in birthing new political leaders

Leadership transition in politics, as in every winner-takes-all venture, is painful. While change ushers in the arrival of the next generation, it also brings the possibility of a different functioning mode from what the elite and the rank-and-file are used to. But the fear in politics is partially unfounded because the original structure in which parties exist is rusted and will not countenance radical changes its timeworn frames are called on to do.

The pangs in birthing new political leaders

YEAR 2018: The Congress missed shaking up the system in Rajasthan and MP. PTI



Radhika Ramaseshan

Senior Journalist

THE year 2018 could have marked a decisive shift for the Congress, if only the leadership had captured the zeitgeist it was leading to. The party had won Assembly elections in three states which were in the BJP’s thraldom. Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh were not easy states to wrest from the BJP. This was the juncture at which the Congress could have addressed the leadership question on a clean slate, without getting daunted by the entrenched provincial Old Guard. This was the juncture to spot and nurture younger leaders from the grassroots to helm the states instead of allowing a sclerotic hierarchy to work the system on rickety limbs.

The Congress displayed the spunk to shake up the system only in Chhattisgarh. It chose Bhupesh Baghel, then 57, as the chief minister in place of veteran TS Singh Deo, a running favourite, with a reported assurance to Singh Deo that the position was a rotational arrangement between him and Baghel. With just a year for Chhattisgarh to vote, the assurance, if real, never materialised. Baghel, a backward-caste Kurmi, not only survived internal challenges but also became a lynchpin of the national Congress organisation. His ascendancy was a recognition and an acknowledgment on the Congress’s part that to survive and retain the base it is left with, strong state leaders were invaluable.

The Congress missed the bus in MP and Rajasthan. In MP, Kamal Nath, 72 in 2018 and remarkably agile, positioned himself as the frontrunner through deft footwork, leaving younger leaders, notably Jyotiraditya Scindia, to search for options.

In Rajasthan, evidently intimidated by the perception that Ashok Gehlot, then 67, had a formidable organisational network of his own (which inevitably failed after he completed his five-year term as the Congress’s rout in 2003 and 2008 testified), the party played safe and rooted for Gehlot to helm a third term. Like Scindia, a much younger Sachin Pilot, projected as Gehlot’s closest rival, was left hanging. The Congress’s fear was that Gehlot could inflict considerable damage to the party if driven up the wall.

The grit displayed in Chhattisgarh — that was perhaps because Singh Deo was seen as less troublesome than Nath and Gehlot — evaporated in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

It need not have played out that way because out of this trio of states, Chhattisgarh is regarded as a sure-fire winner a second time. If re-elected, it will prove that the limited experimentation paid off for the Congress.

In Himachal Pradesh, the Congress top brass overlooked the time-honoured metric of lineage and ‘stature’ when it went for Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu as the CM. Lok Sabha MP Pratibha Singh held on to her claim to the last, insisting that the victory symbolised a homage to her departed husband and former CM Virbhadra Singh. Hers was a contention whose emotional quotient might have worked in the old days but in an era in which ordinariness commands a higher premium over bloodline in politics, Sukhu, the son of a bus driver, pipped her to the post.

The Congress awaits its next big leadership test in poll-bound Karnataka, where it is caught in a welter of rivalry between the old warhorses, Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar, who refuse to forfeit their assumed prerogative to lead the party even on peril of losing an election. Will the high command have the mettle to call their bluff or let the party go adrift amid their strife? By now, the Congress should have developed a second line of leadership, but it passed up the opportunity.

Leadership transition in politics, as in every winner-takes-all venture, is painful. While change ushers in the arrival of the next generation, it also brings the possibility of a different functioning mode from what the elite and the rank and file are used to.

Unlike industry, the fear in politics is partially unfounded because the original structure in which parties exist is rusted and will not countenance, let alone implement, the radical changes its timeworn frames are called on to do. Politics is essentially conservative and change-averse.

The BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is often described as unrecognisably different from the party that existed under Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani. That is not true. The BJP and Modi command a majority of their own and are, therefore, supremely well placed to execute the RSS’s agenda in almost every sphere of governance. A centralised political entity, allowing marginal latitude to the states, has been at the heart of the Sangh’s political philosophy. So, it is not surprising that the BJP’s command structures have been refashioned to enforce the might of the centre in which the losers take nothing, not even the leftovers.

The compulsions in the preceding dispensations were different. Vajpayee ran an unwieldy coalition because the BJP never gained the numbers to stand on its own. It had to contend with pesky allies as well as the Sangh’s incessant demands and could keep neither very happy.

Does this mean that the seemingly invincible central BJP always overrides the states? Himachal partially busted the myth because the BJP’s rebels refused to heed Delhi’s entreaties to back off and help the official candidates. The BJP is struggling to get its Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Rajasthan organisations in place because these states are bereft of credible leaders to replace the veterans in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, while Bihar never had a helmsman. The BJP leaned so heavily on the Janata Dal (United) that the state party was eviscerated.

The BJP’s lacunae do not solve the Congress’s problems. A stated objective of Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra was to re-energise the party organisations in the states. The aftermath? Days after the walkathon traversed Telangana, there was a virtual revolt against the state Congress president, A Revanth Reddy, for allegedly patronising the TDP defectors over the original leaders. There are no short cuts.


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