Democracy is in Danger When Leaders Become a Cult

In the interest of a vibrant democracy, it is imperative that the political leadership of the time is always subjected to critical questioning—both by the public as well as from within the respective political parties. While personality cults in politics do not necessarily endanger critical questioning by the public, it definitely murders such an exercise within the ranks of the political party concerned.

Source: Facebook Page Narendra Modi

The Indian electorate has always been synonymous with personality cults. It is true that factors like religion and caste more often than not determine the electoral outcome in India, but it is also true that in Indian elections personality cults looms large.

This phenomenon is a potential threat to democracy as it digresses from the ideal of casting an informed vote. Moreover, once a person becomes part of a personality cult, he/she gets relegated to the position of a holy cow who cannot be criticised and questioned.

Dr B.R Ambedkar, addressing the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949, said-

“In India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”

Right from the times of Jawaharlal Nehru through Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, to the likes of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi, the larger than life image of the ‘leader’ in the eyes of the voters has often been capitalized by political parties.

This phenomenon is relatively more profound in the state elections. The list includes the likes of M.G Ramachandran (alias MGR), N.T Rama Rao (alias NTR), Biju Patnaik, Bal Thackeray, Jyoti Basu, J Jayalalithaa, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Vasundhara Raje, Naveen Patnaik, Manik Sarkar, Tarun Gogoi, Okram Ibobi Singh, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad Yadav and others.

The 2015 assembly elections in Delhi where the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) garnered an unprecedented victory, winning 67 out of 70 seats, is a recent example of this. Though corruption and anti-incumbency were the pivots of the election campaign, it is no secret that the election essentially was won on the face value of Arvind Kejriwal.

In a similar fashion, the 2014 general elections in which the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the country and formed a majority government on its own, were also marked by the same phenomenon of a personality cult.

Riding the voters’ imagination on the plank of ‘development’, Narendra Modi no doubt made a competitive appeal. However, the general election was won largely due to the “Modi wave” that blew across the country, thanks to some brilliant marketing of “brand Modi.” Gujarat model was the talk everywhere, but there hardly was any answer to the question what exactly the Gujarat model is?

Winning elections on personality cult, of course, is a juicy bait for the political parties, provided, they have a personality capable of being transformed into a cult. What Pt. Nehru did for the Congress in the first decade of independence, Modi did for the BJP in 2014 and Kejriwal for the AAP in 2015 Delhi elections. All of these elections (including the ones of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi) were swept in fashions not much different from each other.

Jayalalithaa's followers after her victory in 2016 Tamil Nadu assembly elections
Jayalalithaa’s followers after her victory in 2016 Tamil Nadu assembly elections. Source: Facebook

If the instrumental use of a personality in elections has become the prerequisite of many landslide electoral triumphs in India, it also is equally counterproductive. Viewed more carefully, such electoral victories often have the seeds of its own destruction sown in it. Such victories last only as long as the personality cult lasts in the electoral market. No sooner the leader seizes to be comparable of his/her former self; the victory march is halted. Furthermore, since the entire election campaign navigates around one single personality, the breeding of other potential future leaders does not take place. As a result, the party finds itself to be leaderless suddenly.

The situation of the BJP during and after the 2014 general elections is not much different from the above analogy. By concentrating only on ‘brand Modi’, the BJP-RSS combo did of course manage to garner majority in the parliament, but in this process, other leaders from BJP were stamped upon.

The shadow of Modi today has grown to such proportions that no other leader comes in sight in his own party. Not only has the personality cult of Modi become larger than the party, but it has also endangered the party’s own future. Leaders like Sushma Swaraj, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Raman Singh, Vasundhara Raje and Rajnath Singh, who otherwise could have flourished, have dwindled; while the likes of Arun Jaitely could not garner the direct mandate of the masses.

The dependence of the BJP on the image of Modi today can be gauged from the fact that in all the assembly elections held after the NDA came into power at the centre; the BJP has had no option other than making him the poster boy everywhere. This was to an extent that elections in Delhi and then in Bihar resembled as if Modi was the chief ministerial candidate and not the Prime Minister. Despite having experienced and popular regional leaders like Dr. Harsh Vardhan, Vijay Goel, Sushil Modi and the like, the BJP appeared nonchalant to overshadow the state leadership under the towering image of Modi.

Indira Gandhi emerged as powerful personality cult and became the center of power in the post 1967 Congress Source: Facebook page Indira Gandhi

This is a new development even for the BJP. There are no doubts that the party scores better than other political parties regarding restricting the concentration of power in an individual (or a family) which later transcends into a dynastic rule. The one good thing about BJP is that its leaders and presidents have emerged from a diverse background. On the other hand, the Congress (especially during and post-Indira Gandhi phase) has evolved as a political party which in effect resembles little of a political party and more so the extended property of Indira Gandhi and her descendants.

The situation is so alarming that despite the exposed inability/immaturity of Rahul Gandhi to register a space for himself and his party in the public, in elections after elections, the Congress president, along with her sycophants, is hell-bent on making him the Prime Minister one fine day in the future. This element of dynastic rule or concentration of power in a single individual or family is prevalent in equal measure (if not more) in various regional parties too.

(This, however, does not mean that the BJP is a party free from this menace. The concentration of power in the BJP manifests itself in a different avatar. There, it is rather factored upon one’s proximity to the ideology of its mentor organisation- the Rashtriya Swayam sewak Sangh. Closer the proximity, higher is the chance of rising in the ranks of the party. Being an upper caste Hindu, of course, is always an added factor).

Parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Samajwadi Party (SP), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Janta Dal United (JDU), Trinamool Congress (TMC), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Biju Janta Dal (BJD), All India Anna Dravida Munetra Kazhkam (AIADMK) and others, all had an ambitious start. All of them, from time to time, have ruled their respective states. But the irony with these parties is that their political appeal has failed to transcend beyond the personality of an individual.

The BSP and SP in Uttar Pradesh (UP) has no face other than Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav respectively; the RJD and JDU could never look beyond the likes of Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar in Bihar; while Mamata Banerjee and Sharad Pawar continue to remain the solitary face of TMC and NCP respectively. The situation is pretty same with BJD in Odissa and DMK and AIDMK in Tamil Nadu.

All these parties, in some form or the other, aspire to become national parties. Some like BSP, SP and NCP have in the past even earned the coveted tag of a national party from the Election Commission. But, their inability to nurture new leaders outside the shadow of their patriarchs has meant that their dance shall last only as long as their ‘leader’ does. After all, what is RJD without Lalu Prasad Yadav, BSP without Mayawati, TMC without Mamata Banerjee, AIDMK without Jayalalithaa, BJD without Naveen Patnaik and NCP without Sharad Pawar?

Arvind Kejriwal has become larger than his party. Under his shadow, other AAP leaders struggle to find space in people's imagination
Arvind Kejriwal has become larger than his party. Under his shadow, other AAP leaders struggle to find space in people’s imagination. Source: Facebook page Arvind Kejriwal

In this background, the new entrant, AAP, does not appear to be much different. Despite all the tall claims about being a ‘party with difference’, that it abides by liberal and democratic values in its internal functions and opposes the family rule, the reality isn’t much heartening. The image of Arvind Kejriwal, like that of Narendra Modi, not only overshadows other party leaders but also the party itself. Despite a mushrooming brigade of leaders like Manish Sisodia, Raghav Chadda, Ashutosh, Kumar Vishwas and others, it is Kejriwal who dominates the party posters and public imagination. To a common person, whenever there is a talk about AAP, the face that surfaces in his/her imagination is that of Kejriwal. This needs to change. Else, its future will not be very different from that of other regional powers with similar dreams of becoming a national alternative.

In the interest of a vibrant democracy, it is imperative that the political leadership of the time is always subjected to critical questioning—both by the public as well as from within the respective political parties. While personality cults in politics do not necessarily endanger critical questioning by the public, it definitely murders such an exercise within the ranks of the political party concerned.

The Indian democracy has for long functioned on the concept of a representative democracy. It is perhaps the need of the hour that the element of participation is also infused into the democratic fabrics of the country. For this, it is imperative that the demi-gods of various political parties are robbed off their cult personalities and subjected to critical questioning. The political system can be far more participative if political parties are freed from the engulfing shadows of a handful.

But, will the bosses ever agree to this?