No Bihari political scientist can possibly understate the importance of caste and religion in shaping the electoral contest. However, there is one other factor that is of growing importance. In all parliamentary democracies across the world, including Australia, power is being centralised in the office of the PM. PMs, including Narendra Modi, increasingly resemble and act like presidents more than the textbook ‘first among equals’ (primus inter pares). This also turns general elections in parliamentary democracies into quasi-presidential contests.
In a crowded field of wannabe presidential candidates for the US Democratic Party, the five top polling politicians presently are, in order: former Vice-President Joe Biden, Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Suppose the Democratic Party decided to avoid brutal infighting before the presidential election in 2020. Instead it asked Americans to vote for the party without a standard bearer in advance. Should the Democrats win against the Republicans, only then would party functionaries choose who of the top five will be the president. How grave a handicap would that be for the party in what is expected to be a bare knuckles contest to eject Donald Trump from the White House?
An Indian voter in this year’s general election, knowing the most important question is not the party but the PM, had a choice between Modi as leader of the country and: who exactly? Rahul Gandhi? Mamata Banerjee? Akhilesh Yadav? Mayawati? A regional leader from the south? Leaders like Congress general secretary Jyotiraditya Scindia and TMC’s Mamata Banerjee made it clear that opposition parties would meet to choose a common leader only after results were declared on 23 May. This played to BJP’s TINA campaign strategy: ‘There is No Alternative to Modi as PM’. In Arun Jaitley’s sharp analysis, the opposition parties had ‘no agreement on either a leader or programme’, and were united only by the negative agenda of bringing down Modi. Modi himself constantly mocked their pretensions to ‘mahagathbandan’, saying it was more a case of ‘mahamilavat’.
The obvious candidate should have been the leader of the Congress party both as the largest opposition party in Parliament and as the only other truly national party. In thoroughly cleansing the Lok Sabha in 2014 of Congress MPs – down from 206 to 44! – voters decisively repudiated the politics of dynasty, inheritance, entitlement, corruption and sycophancy. To recoup and regenerate, Congress had to cut the umbilical cord with the Gandhi family. Instead, sycophants circled the Sonia-Rahul Gandhi wagon, exonerated mother and son, and instead blamed the dramatic collapse of vote and seats on the collective leadership of the party, prompting the thought: chamcha ho to aisa!
The party’s refusal to introspect in order to refresh its leadership, organisation and policy agenda made it anathema to many potential coalition allies if the joint candidate for PM was going to be Rahul. Tavleen Singh was one among many to report on younger voters’ distaste for political family fiefdoms in general, and of Rahul’s aura of entitlement in particular. What precisely are his qualifications and experience, they asked? The Congress vote share remained stuck below 20% and seats barely climbed over 50.
In one reputable survey, one-third of BJP voters said without Modi as leader, the BJP would not have got their vote. Turn this around: What does it imply for the opposition parties without one common leader? The scale of Modi’s triumph overturns some other entrenched nostrums of Indian politics. Voters will reward parties offering a narrative, with leaders chosen not for their dynastic entitlement or inheritance (naamdar), but for leadership qualities (kaamdar): performance, vision, decisiveness, charisma and eloquence.
A credible opposition is an essential prop for a healthy democracy. The double miscalculation – of Congress failure to move beyond the Family and of other parties’ failure to combine behind a non-Gandhi Congress leader as their alternative PM – will haunt the opposition parties daily for the next five years.
Ramesh Thakur is Professor of Public Policy, Australian National University
This article was published by The Times of India on the 8th of June 2019.