M. J. Akbar
Just as a journalist cannot claim the power of a politician, a politician cannot presume the liberty of a journalist. Perhaps the preeminent BJP leader L.K. Advani slipped from one world to the other because he was a journalist for many years, and it remains a fond memory; perhaps he still thirsts for that freedom of expression through a blog that is simply not permitted to a political leader.
The downside, as he should know better than anyone else, is that media, which needs a diet of at least one juicy story a day, will, given the slightest chance, take an inch and turn it into a mile. That is in the nature of this ravenous beast. Mr Advani’s blog on the post-election scenario appeared on a lean news day. Media put some pickle around the story and had a feast.
His analysis was objective; which, of course, was the problem as far as his politics is concerned. Politicians are expected to shape analysis towards their partisan ends, or remain silent. It would be interesting, however, to treat what he wrote on its merits, and check whether it stands up to scrutiny.
He felt that since neither the BJP nor the Congress would have a majority on its own, it was plausible that a Prime Minister could emerge from outside their fold. He raised this as a possibility, not a certainty. Such an eventuality has happened before, he added. He then quickly concluded [which was largely ignored by the media] that such a government could not last. He also noted that the Congress numbers in the Lok Sabha could come down to double digits, so Congress support would be fragile. A stable PM would either need the BJP’s support or would have to come from the BJP.
Such projections are par for the course in conversations this season in Delhi. If anyone else had written this, any self-respecting eyebrow would not have bothered to flicker. The fact that such talk has become mundane is, if you think about it, the real story. It is indicative of a new mood. If the discourse has shifted to a non-UPA Prime Minister after the next general elections, it is only because the possibility has moved from possible to probable. This debate is welcome, because it is a natural element of the democratic process. It is only in dynastic succession that there is no debate, with consequences that are not necessarily beneficial. The Congress does not debate the accession of Rahul Gandhi, because it is not allowed to. The Samajwadi Party does not debate the succession of Akhilesh Yadav, because it is not permitted to. If there is some debate within the DMK it is only whether the heir should be elder brother or younger brother.
The party in all cases is paying the price of closed options. The argument that a political party will crumble without the glue of a single family is not tenable, as far as the voter is concerned. If a political organization is so brittle as to need the same leadership generation after generation, then it will no longer pass the test of time. Families have every right to live within a party; a party cannot live within a family.
In a remarkable coincidence, the strongest regional leaders at present have no anointed heirs: Nitish Kumar, Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee, Navin Patnaik or Jayalalitha. A successor may or may not come from a family, as for instance Jagan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, but he will have to win his spurs with a personal display of commitment, as indeed Jagan Reddy has done. Reddy has probably been saved by adversity. A soft landing into the CM’s chair after his charismatic father’s death could have pulped him; today he has more steel in his sinews.
The single most important criterion for leadership is not genes, but governance. Pedigree is a supplementary criterion, and not a very important one either. That is why Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi are the names that bubble to the surface. Modi’s advantage is that he belongs to a party that will get the largest number of MPs if Congress slips in the next elections; his disadvantage is that BJP’s allies in the next coalition will not find him acceptable. Conversely, Nitish Kumar will be acceptable to allies, but does not belong to the party at the heart of the coalition.
This debate will eventually wind its way to a compromise. There will be twists and turns, as in the course of a political river; but do not expect a sudden flood in favor of any name. However, the relevant point is surely that the debate is considered legitimate rather than preposterous. What Mr. Advani wrote was correct, but for Advani the editor rather than Advani the leader. Political oratory opens the door to power, but only if you shut down half the dictionary.
M. J. Akbar is an eminent Indian journalist. Write to him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.