India’s democratic dilemma: Too many leaders, too little choice

Sonia-RahulThe strange crossroads at which Indian politics appears caught today is redolent of Lord Tennyson’s memorable lines: “The old order changeth, yielding place to new/And God fulfils himself in many ways.”

With due respect to all poetry lovers, one is tempted to re-read these lines in context of Indian politics, “The old order changeth, yielding place to new, And numerous Indian leaders fill themselves in many ways.”

Seriously speaking, Indian politics is engulfed by too many leaders and yet there being practically none who can be credited for being a capable national leader. India suffers from the severe problem of being a leaderless country. Though Manmohan Singh heads the government, as the prime minister for the second consecutive term, prospects of him being hailed as a national leader remain as low today as they were a decade ago. True, Sonia Gandhi has established herself as the Congress chief and head of the coalition, United Progressive Alliance (UPA), her foreign birth remain an obstacle to her ever heading the country as either the premier or even the president. All eyes are set on her son Rahul Gandhi taking over the reins of government as the next prime minister, yet there still remains doubt on whether he is ready for the task or not.

Advani_Modi_295x200 The leading opposition party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is confronted with the same problem in a more taxing manner. Veteran party leader L.K. Advani, who probably still nurtures the ambition of heading India as its prime minister, has been marginalized in his own party by its ideological mentor – the so-called saffron brigade. The key decision-making process in the BJP is now being controlled by the present party head Rajnath Singh, former party chief Nitin Gadkari, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, leader of opposition in Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) Sushma Swaraj and leader of opposition in Rajya Sabha (Upper House of Parliament) Arun Jaitley.

Displeased at virtually being shown the door where the BJP’s strategic planning is concerned, Advani did not take long to express that the country’s voters were “disillusioned” with the Congress as well as the BJP. He also stated that he had been holding this impression for several years. Political sense probably guided Advani in not making this statement earlier as openly as he has a few days ago. Advani decided to fire out his “disillusionment” within his political ranks when he felt convinced that there isn’t any substantial political space for him in his own camp.

Ironically, the very man who helped the BJP assume the importance of a national party is left without a say in the same body. Though several BJP leaders have tried to downplay Advani’s criticism and his being marginalized by saying that they still look up to him as their “guide,” the writing is clear. Formally, Rajnath Singh is the party president. The BJP, however, is at present at command of too many leaders, with practically none having any national image. While Rajnath Singh has failed to help the BJP gain importance in northern India, the appeal of Gadkari and Modi is confined to their regional linkages. There is nothing about Jaitley’s personality that can help him identify with the common Indian. The same can be said about Sushma Swaraj.

The recent political history has witnessed a surge in self-acclaimed leaders identifying themselves with the common Indian (Aam Indian). Activist Arvind Kejriwal heads this list, who has also formed a political party called the Aam Indian Party (AAP). Kejriwal has certainly succeeded in gaining international attention, good media coverage and attracting crowds. His appeal, however, is still confined to a section of educated, urban classes who hardly represent even fifty percent of the common Indians from rural areas, who are either totally illiterate or semi-literate.

The truly common Indian, from rural as well as urban areas, has little time for most political distractions, whether they are Rahul Gandhi’s speeches, Kejriwal’s demonstration or even the BJP’s rally. They can of course be “bribed” to participate in these gatherings, which they usually agree to out of their material interest and not because of their political leanings.  On the one hand, numerous leaders as well as parties at national stage and at regional levels may be viewed as a very strong reflection of this country’s democratic political fabric. Yet, the tragedy is that the same political fabric is being weakened by being stretched in too many directions, which include regional, religious, caste, class and other socio-political divisions. The only relief is that these barriers have not always been stretched to violence and conflict at grassroots level. Thus, in essence, despite India being virtually a leaderless country, the Indian voters’ basic democratic consciousness has not let this weakness prove politically menacing for the nation’s democracy!

(Nilofar Suhrawardy is a freelance journalist. She is the author of Ayodhya Without The Communal Stamp, In the name of Indian Secularism.)