The Personality Cult

So all business newspapers report that LK Advani had issued a “warning” to Yeddyurappa a while back that he was getting too corrupt. Nevertheless, several BJP “party workers” in Karnataka have been coming out in defence of Yeddy, saying he’s innocent and that he’s still their leader. Some of them have refused to accept the leadership of DV Sadananda Gowda. And some of the leaders themselves are quite silent on the issue, preferring to say that the “law will take its own course”.

This points to a larger problem that is afflicting Indian politics nowadays which is the “personality cult”. First of all, we have several parties (too many to name here) where the only ideology is “absolute loyalty to a certain party leader”. Even in parties that don’t fall under this definition (the BJP for instance), we seem to have several “local leaders” who carry significant weight, and local units of parties that are more loyal to their leaders than to the parties. In fact, if you were to objectively look at it, as a voter there seems to be no escape at all from this cult.

This has several disturbing consequences. One stems from the belief that “loyalty should be rewarded”. Given the loyalty that so many of our “leaders” get from “party workers” it is not surprising that the “leaders”, upon assuming power, accord to these workers plum rent-seeking posts, which will keep them happy. This can result in positive feedback – once a leader has shown that he ¬†will “reward” loyalists, more people clamour to get close to him, and they too must get rewarded. And so it goes.

Another fallout of this personality cult is a dramatic increase in security, with not inconsiderable cost to the public. Given t he power that some of our “leaders” wield, the payoffs of bumping off an opposing leader are quite strong, both in terms of electoral politics and otherwise. Parties which have been built on “personal loyalty” as an “ideology”, upon losing their leaders, will suddenly have no “natural centre” and will tend to fragment. Hence, it is in the interest of all politicians to provide themselves “security”, which comes at the cost of the general public (cue traffic jams whenever there is “VIP movement” in some city, or the fact that our generally under-staffed police force has to spend so much of its effort in “VIP security” rather than other more important policing duties).

Then, we seem to be moving to a situation where parties are bereft of ideologies, and are simply collections of random leaders (who have lots of “followers”) thrown together. I’ll probably address this in detail in another post, but if you come to think of it there is very little to choose between different political parties now in terms of ideology. Yes, the BJP might have the nominal ideology of building a Ram Temple, but take that out and there is little to separate it from the Congress. The regional parties are even worse. The only difference you could probably see there is in terms of the dominant caste or lobby backing each party.

Again, it needs to be pointed out that multipolar politics in India is very young – it’s existed for little more than twenty years. Still, the future of Indian politics is worrisome, and I don’t know how we’ll get out of the rut we’re in.

Retired politicians

I must admit a particular fondness for former External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh’s biweekly column in the Business Standard. I was not a great fan of him as a politician, and was happy to see him go when he was accused in the Iraq cash-for-food scandal, but there’s a certain freshness and honesty in the column that I’ve learnt to appreciate. Having had a colourful political career, he has a lot of stories to tell, and though some of these are already well-known, there is value in reading the way he narrates them.

This makes me crave for more such pieces, but the unfortunate fact about Indian politics is that there are few retired politicians. Unlike in developed countries where most politicians go out of office before they are seventy, and then hang around making money by giving speeches and critiquing their successors, the people here continue in active politics even after they’re well into the proverbial seventh age. Look no further than LK Advani who, well into his eighties, still harbours the hope of becoming India’s prime minister one day.

While one result of this is that senior citizens occupy all the posts that matter in a country like ours that is so young (in terms of median age), this also means that there are no retired politicians. This means that there are few people who have seen it all, from the inside or the outside, who are now free from any contractual or political obligations, and so can afford to educate us about all that they’ve seen.

Now that makes me think that our political parties are afraid of people who are still around but out of the system, since their personal and party incentives are not aligned any more. Hence, it might be a possibility that political parties give out posts to senior party members as a sort of dole, so that they don’t retire and tell the wider public all that they know.