Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

Political heirs and parachutists

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Column in Business Standard, October 8, 2016

Foreign travellers in India often remark on the ease of getting into random conversations with Indians and how swiftly the talk turns from the general to the personal. After the first box of “Are you married?” has been ticked, the second inevitably is, “Any issue?”

There may be few countries in the world where the issue of being “issue-less” matters as much – in family, business and political life. Reams of research is available on the subject of large companies haunted by a smooth succession of CEOs – choosing a capable outsider over a family member – and, in the case of small and medium enterprises (SMEs), obdurately resistant to change.

In the case of political parties, the case of succession planning, of appointing a designated successor, or a clearly prescribed contest – as in following David Cameron as prime minister following the Brexit vote – doesn’t exist. In a medical emergency or an accident or the pop of a gun it can throw governments and parties into turmoil. (Recent history has a ready supply of evidence).

Both the head of government Narendra Modi, 66, and 45-year-old Rahul Gandhi, the anointed heir of the main national opposition, are resolutely single. So are three chief ministers: Naveen Patnaik (70 and in power for 16 years), Mamata Banerjee, 61, and, Jayalalithaa, serving her fifth term. The last case is serious. Given the AIADMK supremo’s current illness, complicated by acute diabetes, arthritis and increased loss of mobility, means flailing control over party and administration -and, at 68, an unlikely rapid recovery. There is also Dalit leader Mayawati, 60, now looking forward to a second wind in the Uttar Pradesh election after the BSP scored a cipher in 2014. A succession plan is farthest from the minds of these leaders. They seem to subscribe to the French saying “Apres nous le deluge (After us, the flood),” attributed to Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV whose long reign and many wars ruined France.

Family-run parties are also in trouble. It could be curtains for two feuding, faltering political dynasties in the upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. The Yadavs of Lucknow and the Badals of Chandigarh are classic case studies of running states like SMEs. The public humiliation of at the hands of an egocentric, irascible father and greedy, sniping uncles has unfolded like a jaded medieval melodrama; it is also a lesson in defying the youth demographic of half the country’s under-25 population. Wedded to dynasty itself, the Congress party’s action plan is to field two elderly descendants of political families as candidates for CM: Many would regard 74-year-old and Sheila Dikshit, 78, well past their sell-by date.

himself is more heirloom politician than heir to the family estate. Despite his vigorous khaat sabha campaign in UP to woo farmers, stage-managed by party-hopping electoral strategist Prashant Kishor, his effort is mistimed. He lacked momentum in the first phase of his career – the leadership was his for the asking at the start of UPA-II in 2009 – but now the moment has fled. To quote the Bard, “There is a tide in the affairs of men/Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune/Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows…”

is not alone. The success rate of heirloom politicians (Mehbooba Mufti, Omar Abdullah, Sukhbir Singh Badal, Lalu Prasad’s sons Tejashwi and Tej Pratap Yadav, Supriya Sule and M K Stalin etc.) is variable and patchy. Those not ordained in a family succession but who skillfully manoeuvred their way to leadership – the parachutists of Indian politics -would include Naveen Patnaik, Vasundhara Raje and, because of her unique constituency, Mayawati.

But the real success stories are the risen-from-the-ranks brand of street fighters, leaders unfettered by family baggage and purses, who have carved out distinctive ideologies to win their mandate. Top of the list is Narendra Modi followed by Nitish Kumar, and Arvind Kejriwal. Each has a hunger to succeed, to manage the levers of inner-party intrigue, forge alliances and carefully appoint chosen apparatchiks.

Each also has a demonstrable ability to concentrate power in their hands, whip up populist appeal and survive by ruthlessly stamping out competition and dissent. Narendra Modi proved this as Gujarat chief minister and as prime minister he swiftly put the old guard of Lal Krishna Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi to pasture and sidelined Arun Shourie. On a lesser scale, Arvind Kejriwal has purged the Aam Aadmi Party of potential rivals and dissenters. But none of these leaders has a succession plan in place. It is their greatest failing and vulnerability. They have poor recall of the poet John Donne’s famous line, “For whom the bell tolls… It tolls for thee.”


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