The end of charisma?


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AMONGST the many surprises that marked the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections was the complicated ways in which question of ‘leadership’ haunted political discourse at every turn, and yet turned out not to be decisive in determining outcomes. More than India Shining, the BJP had counted on Atal Behari Vajpayee’s personal popularity going into the elections.

Most opinion polls suggested that Vajpayee had a considerable lead as the best prime ministerial candidate. He had started drawing comparisons with Nehru, as the one colossus who was popular across party lines. He was in the process of becoming a unifying force rather than a divider, a master manager of coalition politics, a poet whose response to most political crisis was a wistful poem that, while it may not address the issue at hand, certainly made opponents weak-kneed and supporters dewy eyed. He had, or so we thought, become a considerable mass leader. The press, across ideological lines, seemed to fall for Vajpayee’s mystique, portraying him as a genuine leader who was on his way to becoming a statesman. His charisma was thought to be an electoral winner.

The BJP seemed to have other advantages on the leadership issue. It had not one but a range of prominent leaders: some good at policy, some at organization, and some at propaganda. Some were good at playing dirty hardball politics, while others could, if need be, masquerade as liberal statesmen. There was a restless energy to everything the BJP did, manufactured in part by the fact that it had a number of men and women who could debate, take the initiative and always direct the limelight towards the party. The BJP seemed full of leaders.

On the other hand leadership was supposed to be Congress’ Achilles heel. Sonia Gandhi had no clear policy views anyone knew of. While she had started drawing crowds, these seemed more an artifact of people’s curiosity than palpable enthusiasm. All of Congress’ other potential prime ministerial candidates seemed confined to their regional enclaves or were, at best, Rajya Sabha material. Even the anti-BJP press expressed open worries about her leadership capabilities. She had seldom showed initiative on any issue, could not handle a press conference and rarely departed from scripted performances.

The Congress seemed to lack a second tier leadership as well. Most of the prominent faces in the Congress had no mass base: they consisted of a motley combination of Gandhi family loyalists or retired civil servants. It had a few good chief ministers but they were struggling to hold onto their own states. In fact, even during the election campaign, Congress, in so far as it appeared to be a show at all, was largely a one-woman show.



After the results were announced suddenly the tables seem to turn. Sonia Gandhi appeared to be a larger than life figure; her act of renunciation only enhanced her charisma and authority. Atalji, on the other hand, cut a sorry figure. His silence in the face of the grotesque and ungraceful behaviour of his party members like Sushma Swaraj and Uma Bharti towards Sonia Gandhi frittered away all the leadership capital that he had accumulated.

We were suddenly reminded that we never quite knew who Vajpayee really was: a builder of coalitions or a mask whose true identity was tailored to suit the occasion. We were reminded that his great moments in politics were silence and ambiguity rather than decisive leadership. His response to the Gujarat riots was to put it mildly, timid. After the murder of Graham Staines, the Australian missionary, he wistfully called for a ‘debate’ on conversions. We were struggling hard to find occasions when he had put his decisive stamp on anything. True, he had kept the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch from pushing the nation towards economic hara-kiri, but it now seemes that this had more to do with the momentum towards liberalization than his political skills. Suddenly all that was solid about him seemed to vanish into thin air.

All of this raises a couple of questions. First, what exactly is the role of leadership in a parliamentary democracy? Does leadership, in the sense of the charisma and capabilities of a prime ministerial candidate really matter? And if it does not, why the constant search for and lament over the absence of leaders? Second, what does the discourse of leadership reveal about us? How do we attribute leadership qualities to individuals as easily as we cut them down to size?

In some ways this mystery is deepened if one examines the response to Sonia Gandhi’s renunciation of the position of prime minister. What was surprising was not the fact that she did not become prime minister – it is not too difficult to make a personal and political case for that decision. What was surprising was the fact that no sooner had the Congress emerged as a party likely to form government, there were calls and editorials, from non-BJP quarters asking her to relinquish the position.



Whatever we may think of Sonia Gandhi’s decision, we ought to admit that there was something bordering on the absurd in the debate over whether she should become prime minister. I am not referring to the disfiguring posture of the BJP on the foreign origins issue. It is rather the absurdity of the fact that the very people who were now projecting her as a mass leader, a woman who had single-handedly rescued Congress from the doldrums, a woman who had managed to crystallize the anti-NDA sentiment, a woman who had learnt to speak an electoral language that spoke to the needs of the poor, those very people were counselling her to renounce the prime minister’s position.

I suspect that there was more than a touch of hypocrisy here. Even large numbers of Congress supporters, who had no truck with the foreign origins issue, were uncomfortable with her being prime minister. It was a great relief to them that their prejudices and anxieties could remain hidden behind the robe of renunciation Sonia Gandhi now put over it. Many applauded Sonia Gandhi, not because they cared much for saintly virtues, but because her saintliness on this occasion, hid their own infirmities and prejudices.



We then end up with a prime minister whose policy competence and unimpeachable integrity are beyond doubt. His personal qualities, a subtle and thinking mind, a calming patience, a self-effacing humility, and a real commitment to public service are laudatory by any measure. But is he a leader? By any yardstick of popularity, by any measure of an ability to move large numbers of people or have a hold over mass organization the answer is a clear No.

If leadership is defined by the ability to seize the initiative, then Manmohan Singh’s record as a government official gives no clear indication on this score. He was the finance minister who ushered in a new era of economic reforms, but he had the cover of an economic crisis and there is some debate over whether he made the most of it. But if he can put the stamp of his justly famous integrity on government, and can prevent sound economic convictions from being hijacked by unruly coalition politics, there is no reason why he cannot emerge from under Sonia Gandhi’s shadow. Now that greatness has been thrust upon him, he has an opportunity to rise to the occasion. But all the early indications are that this is going to be difficult to achieve.

Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh could, many are hoping, be a great double act. One is a leader with mass popularity, control over the party, and increasing moral authority. The other is a person quintessentially suited for government: a morally serious policy wonk, and one who represents the best traditions of public service. In contrast to his ministerial colleagues who were scrambling to get the media spotlight, Manmohan Singh was going out of his way to be self-effacing – quite literally. On the other hand Sonia Gandhi’s act of renunciation seemed to run the risk of breaching proprieties of government fairly rapidly. Whether or not it was at her instigation, the law minister’s claim that Sonia Gandhi had a right to access government files was a gross breach of propriety. Sonia Gandhi may have cabinet rank, but she is not a cabinet minister. She has not taken an oath of office.



It may be a minor matter, but in a democracy, as Tocqueville argued, formalities are often all that stand between liberty and arbitrary power, and we may be in a position where a leadership structure that has produced an authority without power and a power without authority might complicate constitutional norms more than one can imagine. A leader unrestrained by constitutional formalities will have to exercise an even greater modicum of self-restraint and virtue in exercising power. Whether Sonia Gandhi, having enhanced her leadership by an act of renunciation, will be so restrained is an open question.

One thing is increasingly becoming clear. It is unlikely that a mature parliamentary democracy will have room for leaders with commanding authority like Nehru or even Indira Gandhi. In our zeal to elevate Vajpayee to leadership status, we forgot the elementary fact that we are a parliamentary democracy, not a presidential system. In our system, it is highly unlikely that single individuals can have a decisive outcome on elections. The circumstances under which extraordinary leaders are produced are rare indeed. Nehru and his colleagues were the products of a mass movement spanning decades, and this sort of social mobilization is unlikely to be replicated in the course of normal politics. Indira Gandhi was as much an artifact of a single party dominance that is also unlikely to be replicated in the near future. And even Atal Behari Vajpayee acquired the status that he had after nearly five decades in politics.



The end of charismatic politics is exemplified by the fact that after Rajiv Gandhi we have had a series of prime ministers who by any measure of popular charismatic authority, would fall short: Narasimha Rao, Deve Gowda, Inder Gujral and now Manmohan Singh. These leaders are all artifacts of some structural features of our political system. In this political system it is very difficult for national leaders to emerge for a variety of reasons. It takes an immensely long time even to build support in your regional base, and just at the moment when leaders are ready to leverage their regional base into national power, it is likely that they will suffer the pains of rejection from their own core constituency. The volatility of electoral politics makes the prospects of stable leaderships slimmer. It is proving very difficult for any chief minister, or regional big boss to transcend the boundaries of their state.

Second, gaining acceptance at a national level is not simply a matter of having popular appeal. It is also a matter of persuading popular leaders from other regions to go along with you. And historically there has been a pattern where regionally powerful leaders distrust other regionally powerful leaders, cutting them down to size or undermining them. That is one of the reasons why the heavyweights in Congress could not successfully challenge the dynasty after the demise of Nehru; and even during the nineties, the Sharad Pawars and Rajesh Pilots of the Congress could not mount a collective offensive against the power of the Gandhi family.

With regional leaders more or less cancelling each other out, there is a great demand for someone who appears neutral. In many ways it is the greatest asset of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty that they are not seen to be from anywhere in particular and can therefore belong everywhere. The initial support for Indira Gandhi came from the fact that each regional faction of Congress thought that she would be more amenable to his or her interests than of any other rivals. It is a different matter that Indira Gandhi could deftly use power to cut them all down to size, one by one, in a master strategy of divide and rule.



Post Rajiv Gandhi, we have had prime ministers whose main attraction is that they are not political giants in their own right. It is easier to get consensus around them. But none of them has been able to use power to make their own position unassailable, or their authority unquestioned. In fact, it is likely that a premium on consensus also prevents the emergence of strong decisive leaders.

A third feature that makes the emergence of strong leaders difficult is the fact that there is no intra-party democracy. In some ways most political parties, whether it is the Congress, or the RJD, SP or BSP, have a system of leadership by appointment. One of the ways in which leaders emerge is if there is free and open contestation at levels of the political party. Intra-party democracy sets clear rules about how one goes about becoming a party leader, at any level of the party. It is difficult to become a significant party leader at the national level if it is not clear what the rules are for enabling you to become one. Intra-party democracy creates a culture where politicians have to routinely court their party members across the length and breadth of the country; it ensures that those who rise to the top in a particular party at least have a mass base within it.

But at the moment, the ability to rise within a political party is determined by the preferences of the entrenched leadership. And this leadership, more likely than not, is going to ensure that it is never challenged. The result is a premium on rewarding loyalty, rather than encouraging independence. Parties create structures where it is all but certain that any potential challengers will be cut down to size before they become a threat. The odds are, therefore, stacked in favour of existing leadership.



And political parties do not function as a school for creating new leaders; they serve as mechanisms for producing loyalists. It is small wonder that we have a political culture, for example, in the Congress party, where loyal hangers-on populate the top rather than independent-minded individuals. If political parties continue to be mechanisms where loyalty is the way to the top, you are unlikely to get strong leaders. If our political culture encourages obsequiousness, this is not because of some feudal hangover; it is an artifact of the institutional design.

Ironically, the so-called ethnification of the party system will also make it more difficult for national leaders to emerge. Politics in India has become profoundly representative and often we judge it by nothing else but its ability to be representative. But the function of leaders in such a system is to be a reflection of their constituents – their social base or regional identity. The more they transcend these affiliations, the more they run the risk of not performing the representative functions that brought them into prominence in the first place. Most politicians that rise on the backs of a social identity face this dilemma, and most have taken the safer route of nurturing their core constituency. But this creates conditions whereby few leaders will be willing to transcend their own social base.



So the structural conditions make it very difficult for powerful leaders to emerge or endure in Indian politics. This may not be such a bad thing, in so far as it has inoculated us from the allure of charisma. Even the holding pattern that the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty is able to perform, is less, at this point at any rate, a function of obvious charisma, but more because it helps break a deadlock that Indian politics is routinely likely to throw up. There is no guarantee that powerful leaders, from the dynasty or outside, cannot emerge in the future, but if the analysis given above is correct, this is likely to happen either under very exceptional circumstances, or by an extraordinary act of political imagination.

Vajpayee seemed nonplussed by the election results. He can take some solace in the fact that we do not have a presidential system, a fact that we routinely forget. But this is also a lesson a future claimant of the leadership mantle, Rahul Gandhi will also do well to remember. Both will do well to remember that in a democracy suffrage establishes the sufferance. It is democracy’s great virtue that it chastens all authority and pretensions to leadership. And its biggest paradox is that it will routinely demand leaders but cut them down to size if they lead too much or claim too much.