Monday, March 19, 2012

Weak national parties; weak national leaders….

The last few days have seen the two national parties – the Congress and the BJP – face acute embarassment. The Congress faced a revolt from within its ranks in Uttarakhand. The BJP is facing the same situation in Karnataka. A few weeks back, the two parties both suffered a drubbing in the state elections (ok….they can keep squabbling on who got a bigger drubbing!) while the regional parties surged ahead. So we now have a situation where not only have the national parties become relatively weaker, they are struggling even to keep their flock together.

So what’s going on here? Why is Yeddy revolting so openly and unashamedly against his party in Karnataka? Why is Harish Rawat doing the same against the Congress in Uttarakhand? Let’s first look at why the regional parties are doing better than the national parties.

Clearly, the SP and the BSP are more rooted in the politics of UP than the BJP and Congress are. They have nothing but UP to fight for. All their leaders are from the state; all of them have ambitions restricted largely to the state. They speak the language of the people; resonate with their complaints; and in short represent them much better than the national parties do. The national parties on the other hand look at the states as being the gateways to power at the center. UP is important because it represents 80 seats; not because of what it is per se. Each national party is happy to do (perfunctorily) whatever it takes to get those seats. Once the state is won, the focus shifts back to the Center.

Take the case of Maharashtra where Prithviraj Chavan (a good CM by any standards) failed to read the political opportunity afforded by 17 years of Shiv Sena – BJP rule in Mumbai. As far as he was concerned, the political opportunity was a mathematical one. Get into an alliance with the NCP and the battle is won! Maybe the Congress made the mistake of not fielding the right candidates; those who represented the people better. Maybe they forgot to get more of their supporters to vote; the Shiv Sena on the other hand is a strong cadre based party. Maybe the issues raised were wrong; the people were more focused on local issues. Whatever the reasons, the fact is that the drubbing in Mumbai highlighted the fact that Prithviraj Chavan was an “outsider”.

Take the debacle of both the Congress and the BJP in UP. Neither party had strong local leaders. Rita Bahuguna Joshi is a political lightweight and Uma Bharati an outsider. Both were guided by policies framed by their masters in Delhi.

The only exception to this general trend is seen in states where the national parties have propped up strong local leaders; Modi for the BJP and YSR in AP being two such examples. Now that YSR has gone and the Congress has anointed a lightweight as the CM, the Congress’s fortunes are bound to decline there. By this logic, the BJP would be better served by re-instating Yeddy as the CM – the general feeling of corruption against him notwithstanding. All said and done, the issue of corruption is a national issue – which engages people at an intellectual level; not really a local issue at all. At the level of the states, the issues are more related to “aata daal” – concerning the daily grind of life. In Karnataka’s state elections, Yeddy is a towering personality and he could win the BJP the state yet again. The problem that central leaders face is that such strong local leaders are seen as a threat.

So regional parties are having a field day in the states. And strong regional leaders of national parties are also having a field day. Now look at the Central leaders that we have today.

The seniormost leaders of the Congress are Sonia, Manmohan and Pranab Mukherjee. None of them is a “traditional” politician; a mass leader which can handle the politics. None of them have the gravitas of a Vajpayee or a Narasimha Rao or an Indira Gandhi. Remember the days when we had such PMs as Inder Gujral (a fine man otherwise, but a political lightweight). Look at the BJP. Two of their top three leaders are lightweight politically (Nitin Gadkari and Arun Jaitley). On their own, they couldn’t lead a small district unit of their party; and yet they are playing big roles at the Center. Only Sushma Swaraj is a true blooded politician and a charismatic person at that. The BJP has also muted out other political heavyweights like Murli Manohar Joshi and Rajnath Singh.

Why do central political parties feel compelled to mute out their regional leaders? The reason is not difficult to understand. In a coalition era, the regional parties are able to exert more than proportionate pressure on the central parties. Just look at Mamata and DMK under the UPA-2 rule and Mamata and Jayalalitha under NDA rule. If such allies have to be “adjusted”, then the central leadership necessarily has to be “flexible” (a euphemism for weak in politics). A Vajpayee is more suitable than an Advani; a Manmohan Singh than anyone else in the Congress. Pliable central leaders are part of the coalition regime it would appear.

There is one other reason why traditional politicians are not emerging at the center. The people of the country perhaps want to see more sophisticated leaders representing their country. Most of these (Arun Jaitley, Manmohan Singh, even Pranab Mukherjee for most of his life) are elected from the Rajya Sabha where political astuteness and dirty aggression is not a pre-requisite. State politics is dirty – and almost all regional leaders have to indulge in the dirty aspects. Some are accused of corruption; some of fanning religious sentiments; others of caste politics and yet others of parochial opposition to everything. At the center, this doesn’t work. So we have a situation where central leaders are intellectuals; while the state leaders are the real politicians. These politicians make the central intellectuals dance to their tunes! They often dictate policy; but have no concurrent responsibility for the same. The DMK can make India vote against Sri Lanka. It has a limited objective of catering to local sentiments. It’s not the DMK’s problem that a vote against Sri Lanka could give China an easy entry into that country; something that could have devastating consequences for the country.

Forget what state leaders claim. The truth is that we have far too much federalism in this country. We need less, not more federalism.

The real truth is that both the BJP and the Congress need to introspect. They need to think about who takes on the positions of power within their organizations. The much touted intra-party elections may be one solution. But more than that, it is the genuine conviction that only strong political leaders (and not intellectuals) can lead political parties that is needed. Till that happens, the center will keep getting weaker (even if it has a majority) and the states will keep getting stronger (even if ruled by a central party)…..

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