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Political class is its worst enemy

Political class is its worst enemy

Author: Swapan Dasgupta
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: January 11, 2009
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/149246/Political-class-is-its-worst-enemy.html

Where are the young people?" a 34-year-old Canadian MP of Indian origin attending the Pravasi Bharatiya jamboree is said to have asked the veterans, prompting the sycophantic brigade to resurrect the 'Rahul Gandhi for Prime Minister' campaign. In terms of political positioning, External Affairs Minister Pranab Munkherjee did the right thing by signalling that the Congress had its youth heir-apparent waiting in the wings. He did not suggest that the Regency period was approaching its final days and that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is on his way to enjoying retirement. But he did what has become drearily obligatory in the post-Obama world: Pay ritual obeisance at the altar of the energetic new world of the under-40s.

Contrast the Congress' awareness of the restiveness in a section of the population that feels excluded from the political decision-making process with the bloody-mindedness that was on display in the BJP last week. The decision of the octogenarian Bhairon Singh Shekhawat to claim that seniority is the basis of leadership has been met by both incredulity and ill-concealed ridicule. Whether Shekhawat was driven by a visceral hatred of his former protégé Vasundhara Raje or was beguiled by his own unwillingness to be content with just being an elder statesman, is of academic interest. What should worry the BJP is that the media's gleeful interest in the party's old-age fissures has strengthened the impression of its growing detachment from demographic realities.

It didn't help matters that, at the same time, Shekhawat was pitching his claim to be considered as a possible leader of the NDA - egged on by the same worthies who had conjured up visions of large-scale cross-voting during the presidential election - the BJP was undertaking a simultaneous act of hara-kiri. I have nothing against the veteran Om Prakash Kohli who was nominated by the BJP Central leadership to succeed Harshvardhan as president of the Delhi unit. From all accounts, Kohli was not even a contender for the job but emerged as a consensus candidate after a stalemate. He has not featured in the popular consciousness for as long as anyone cares to remember.

Settling for a consensus candidate to resolve a stalemate is often the preferred course of committee-based politics; the more democratic path involving wider consultations is somehow always given a go-by. However, a political party that has just emerged from an unexpected electoral drubbing and needs to recoup its forces for a Lok Sabha election that is just 100 or so days away needs to be more sensitive to its shortcomings.

Last month's Assembly election in Delhi suggested that the BJP was burdened by its inability to cope with the profound demographic changes in the city. Like the erstwhile Jana Sangh (which ceased to exist in 1977), the BJP continues to proceed on the broad assumption that a network built around Punjabis, the Vaishya community and a sprinkling of Jats in the urban villages can win it Delhi. The cosmopolitanism that is necessary to appeal to the vast number of migrants from all over India, who have made Delhi their home since the 1980s, is singularly absent from the Delhi BJP. Rather than attend to this problem frontally, the party settled for a shoddy compromise because its leadership was unwilling to disturb entrenched interests in the party. The party's behaviour was reminiscent of seminary (mutt) intrigues where the focus is on an insular, self-contained campus of believers rather than on an outside world inhabited by sceptics. The rules governing sects don't work for political parties operating in a competitive environment.

The argument that the Shekhawat episode and the muddle in its Delhi unit are just storms in a teacup that will be forgotten once the General Election campaign gets under way may only be right up to a point. Indian elections are only partially presidential and most voters are likely to choose on the strength of local preferences. Yet, the overall appeal of rival parties will also be shaped by the attraction of their respective captains. In the past week, the BJP has scored self-goals because they have drawn attention to a cussed gerontocracy in the party.

The willingness of the NDA to go with LK Advani at the helm is not based on the leader's date of birth. Advani's acceptability is centred on his track record, his political skills, his outlook and his ability to handle difficult challenges.

At this moment, he is the only one in the BJP able to balance acceptability in the political class with popular appeal. His age is incidental to his position. However, if the party goes out of its way to convey an impression that seniority is at a premium and that outmoded thinking will prevail because some leaders can't be bothered to think, it will be forcing people's attention to a generational divide.

This is something the Congress would love. The party, backed by a mindless section of the media, has been hinting at a so-called 3G leadership and putting a premium on recent vintages as a diversion from the decrepit dynastic principle that governs its conduct. It is a travesty to believe that a New India and a Young India will be created by replacing ability and meritocracy with pedigree and inheritance. Where would that have left Obama? Yet, this is precisely what is being suggested through the unseemly deification of Rahul Gandhi and Omar Abdullah.

But, instead of positing a meaningful alternative, the BJP seems hellbent on building up an equally exclusionary principle centred on age and outmoded thought. India's political parties, it would seem, are often their own worst enemies.

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