It is important to remind ourselves that the only driving force for a political leader is the quest for power. There are no other higher ideals or purposes. This is the fundamental truth about leaders in any form of government, whether it is a democracy, dictatorship or an authoritarian rule. However, there is a subtle but important difference between a democracy and other forms of government. In a democracy, the anonymous, “unknown” citizens of the country elect their political leaders while in other forms of government, the select few “known” citizens elect them. Therefore, a political leader in a democracy, in order to acquire and retain power, is compelled to cater to the needs of the public at large, while in other forms of government a political leader only needs to cater to a select few, perhaps at the expense of a large section of society. An important implication of this is that a political leader in a democracy will have to be a relentless campaigner to woo the public to elect him to power. His foreign policy, socio-economic policy and national security policy will, by and large, be shaped by the demands of the public that will elect and re-elect him to power. If the campaign ends, so will the political life. The campaign must go on. Because it is this relentless campaign that connects the leader to the masses, it is this campaign that disciplines the leader to work in the interest of the public.
Lesson for the Congress In an article, veteran Congress leader P. Chidambaram mocked the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, unlike prime ministers of the past, is always in “campaign mode.” Well, there is an important lesson to be learnt for the Congress here: to be relevant, it will have to campaign. In 2004 and 2009, relentless campaigning by the Congress brought it to power; in 2014, the lack of it resulted in its worst defeat ever — it could not even muster enough seats to claim the leadership of the opposition. Its lacklustre campaign in the recently concluded Delhi Assembly elections is the most important reason for the Congress’s complete wipe out; 62 of its candidates lost their deposits! Had the party lost due to a lack in performance, it would have been understandable, but the truth is that it actually performed. In 1998, the infrastructure in Delhi was crumbling, the economy was stagnant, life in general was old and sluggish. But in 2013, a world-class metro was built, flyovers were constructed, the local economy was booming, and life in general was vibrant and young. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, the Congress did not feel the need to communicate all these successes to the public.
“ The Congress's resurrection can only happen if the quest for power is rekindled in its leadership ”
When did the party stop campaigning? I believe it happened with the anointment of Rahul Gandhi as the vice-president of the party on January 19, 2013. Mr. Gandhi’s summary rejection of the quest for power ended the Congress’s campaign. Perhaps not having to struggle for power led him to a naive belief that he can be politically relevant without searching for power. In his maiden speech as vice-president, Mr. Gandhi emotionally talked about what his mother told him: “Power that many people seek is poison” and “We should not chase power, but use it to empower others.” He was very sincere and genuine in what he said. But unknowingly, his childlike detachment from the quest for power took away the only reason to be a political leader. And without a political leader, the Congress did not have a campaign and, therefore, ceased to be relevant. Mr. Gandhi forgot the basic tenets of democracy — the only antidote to power in a democracy is that in order to gain power, the consent of the people is required — and it is the seeking of this consent that “empowers voices.”
Grounded in reality Paradoxically, political leaders in a democracy who seek power are more grounded in reality in terms of what people actually need, while those who detach themselves from power live in a narrow make-believe world of what they think the people want. Such leaders, unfortunately, have a paternalistic approach towards the betterment and empowerment of society and, therefore, are rejected for good reasons by the people. This is precisely what happened to the Congress in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
For the sake of democracy, it is extremely important that the Congress party be revived. The disciplining mechanism of democracy is effective only if people have alternatives. Otherwise it is a matter of time before power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The resurrection of the Congress is in national interest and it can only happen if the quest for power is rekindled in its leadership, particularly in Mr. Gandhi. In this regard, there is a lot he can learn from his grandmother Indira Gandhi, who had an unquenchable thirst for power. She derived her strength and power directly from the public and that made her a mass leader.
Mrs. Gandhi was on perpetual campaign mode. In more recent times, Mr. Modi and Arvind Kejriwal have emerged as populist mass leaders. Like Mrs. Gandhi, they have a direct connect with the people, and the hunger and drive to be in power. They campaign hard for it and the masses love and cheer them for this. Their politics of directly appealing to the anonymous “unknown” citizen to obtain power is a refreshing change from the “(a)dharma” of coalition politics of more recent times where only a few “known” elected representatives are appeased to retain power. For the sake of democracy, the Congress must rise to the new era of mass politics and remind itself that the quest for power is the only driving force for political survival.
(Mudit Kapoor is Assistant Professor of Economics and Public Policy, Indian School of Business, Hyderabad.)