OPINION

Political rivals, not personal enemies



Harish Khare

For too long, our political disputes have been overshadowed by personalities. Indian politicians need to devise a new idiom based less on personality and more on ideas.

ON MONDAY, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh put in an appearance at the birthday celebrations of his predecessor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In itself this gesture does not add up to much because neither Mr. Vajpayee nor Dr. Singh belongs to the extreme partisan fringes of our political life; both are known to have practised politics of personal decency. But what adds zing to the prime ministerial courtesy is the fact that only a day earlier Mr. Vajpayee was the shining star at the Bharatiya Janata Party's anti-Congress, anti-United Progressive Alliance slugfest at Lucknow. The Prime Minister was not dissuaded by Mr. Vajpayee's partisan performance a day earlier.

While Mr. Vajpayee was excoriating the UPA Government for the benefit of the BJP faithful in Lucknow, the Prime Minister was in Kolkata trying to build another political bridge. He appeared to be providing moral and intellectual support to the West Bengal Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who finds himself in the midst of a political controversy over the Singur project. Mr. Bhattacharjee belongs to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), a party that is often a source of questioning, criticism, and embarrassment for the Prime Minister and his government. Yet Dr. Singh lent his presence to the Chief Minister.

Perhaps Dr. Singh's gestures were inspired only by the spirit of Christian charity but these do underline the self-evident but rarely practised axiom that political rivalry and disputes need not always degenerate into personal animosity. Because political parties are organised around individual leaders, personal egos and ambitions invariably get projected as expressions of political contestations. The bitterness that the Dravidian parties have almost institutionalised can easily be traced to personal contempt and intolerance leaders have for one another. Leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav, H.D. Deve Gowda, and Mayawati have become prime practitioners of personalised politics.

In a way, this over-emphasis on personality is a by-product of the "mass politics" that can be said to have begun with the 1971 Lok Sabha elections when Indira Gandhi pitted her persona against the Syndicate. What was a simple power struggle for control of the Congress party got projected as a fight between "one lone woman" and a group of old organisational bosses. Indira Gandhi won the round but ended up introducing personality into political equations. Soon every political controversy became a standoff between Indira Gandhi and her critics. It was Jayaprakash Narayan's personal disdain and distrust that came to define his "movement," which only begot the infamous experiment with "internal emergency."

The Janata crowd's obsession with Indira Gandhi only garnered political respectability for her personality cult, a legacy that in her death she bestowed on her son. Rajiv Gandhi was soon caught up in personality-centric posturing.

The BJP has unquestioningly imbibed the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's cultivated animosity towards the Nehru family, and it profited quite considerably when it made the 1999 Lok Sabha election into a battle between the "videshi" Sonia Gandhi and the "deshbhakt" Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Because of their obsession with Ms. Sonia Gandhi, the BJP leaders failed completely to realise that their own politics of animosity had crafted a kind of acceptance for her. For this obsession, the BJP and the rest of the National Democratic Alliance paid the price and were voted out of power.

But the habits of personalised politics have seeped deep into the BJP's organisational culture. The shadow of a Vajpayee-Advani rivalry dwarfed the NDA regime throughout. It is too early to say whether the BJP leaders will be inclined to heed Mr. Vajpayee's eminently sane advice to rise above factional feuds.

Though personal ambitions and egos are necessary ingredients in a leadership profile, the time has come for the Indian political leadership to graduate out of the feudal ethos. If India has to meet the challenge of political management in a new century, our leaders will necessarily have to rediscover ideas, ideologies, and institutions to define their leadership.

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