The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Indian political parties are moving from manifestos to personalities

We know what the general elections mean, or used to mean. It meant that different political parties put up candidates for whom people in a demarcated area — a constituency — voted, and the one who got the largest number of votes was declared elected from that constituency. If that person’s party had more candidates elected than half the number of seats in the Lok Sabha, that party then formed the government.

I am stating these simple basic facts for a particular reason. It is because we will then be able to see just how far we have come from this basic concept of parliamentary democracy. There was, in the beginning, not so much the word of god as the manifesto of different parties; those statements declared what they would do to better the lives of people, the evils done by the incumbent government and so on. The manifestos were important because we then knew what a party was going to do, and what it stood for. That, at least, was the idea. But there were years when parties spent days wrestling with the exact wording of these documents or declarations; if they were not important to those of us who voted, they were, it seemed, important to them.

Now the age of manifestos is, apparently, over. It has been overtaken by the age of coalitions and alliances and fronts. All of them do have something that goes by the name of a common minimum programme or its equivalent. A statement of what the alliance or coalition or group or front has as its programme of action. You could say it is a kind of manifesto, but it is not, because a manifesto has some ideological baggage that comes with it, whereas a coalition or front has a common programme designed basically to keep that front or alliance in power, and the programme is the glue that does so. It has no other value, and no one really believes that the alliance or front seriously intends to ensure that the programme is followed, except where it suits its particular political ends.

One is tempted to say that perhaps the age of the single party is over but that would be jumping the gun. Parties are still a major force in the political system and from the looks of things, will remain so for a long time. But it is not unlikely that the party as we know it — the Congress or Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or Samajwadi Party, for example — may gradually change from entities which are distinctly recognizable to groups that merge and coalesce depending on political convenience. What P.A. Sangma and his followers are doing right now, and what Bhajan Lal did some years ago are examples of what may happen to parties in general.

Why they will change is obvious. For power. The need to get political power is already taking a toll. Look at the way the Bharatiya Janata Party has practically moulted, and acquired a new skin, a skin that enables it to merge with the others of its kind in the National Democratic Alliance. It is certainly becoming true that as time passes, no one party will have the kind of overarching support and image as the Congress did in the years following independence. The Congress, and the BJP, and other parties must lose some portion of their individual identities in the emerging coalitions which will contest the elections. Oddly, even though we have a very large number of parties, what is slowly emerging is a kind of two-alliance system — the BJP-led NDA and the Congress-led alliance, which still does not have a name as current as the other. But these are the two forces that are forming and closing ranks, and facing off for the general elections.

And with it, we’re seeing a move towards something else, something much more fundamental in its significance. This is a move towards elections fought by alliances or coalitions, but primarily not on ideological or any issue-based grounds. These elections will be between two personalities — Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi. Ultimately, whatever the tactics — the India Shining campaign and its counterpart — all of them will have as the bottom-line the two personalities pitted against each other. The only complication is that one is not sure whether Sonia Gandhi is being, or will be, projected by the coalition of parties the Congress is leading as the prime-ministerial candidate. That is its most serious weakness, and as of now there is no clarification or firm and unequivocal stand on this.

But surely one can see just how far we have come away from the initial and basic concept of parliamentary democracy. This election is, in essence, no different from the election in the United States of America to be held between George W. Bush and John Kerry. And, predictably, that is precisely how the media is projecting it. It is Sonia Gandhi’s roadshow versus Vajpayee’s appeals to people to consider how India is Shining. L.K. Advani’s rath yatra has been given some prominence, true, but it is really an extension of the projection of Vajpayee, which Advani has no hesitation in admitting.

And this is parliamentary democracy desi-style, mind you. No harking back to British conventions, no consultation of May’s Parliamentary Practice. In Britain, Labour may well project Blair as its prime-ministerial candidate yet again in a general election; the Conservatives will project — well, what’s-his-name. Which is exactly the point. They are not automatically stuck on one or the other as the one and only leader. It may be that Blair is Labour leader today — he may not be, according to some, for the next election — and Margaret Thatcher was, for three elections, the automatic choice as leader, for the Conservatives. But they change their leaders, and we are very reluctant to do so. That’s why the system, although similar outwardly in Britain and in this former colony, is actually quite different.

The NDA will not change Vajpayee even though he is not in the best of health and is almost eighty; they will not do so because if they did, the NDA could easily fall apart. The Congress-led alliance will not change Sonia Gandhi — at least as the leader of the election campaign — because of other considerations; the Congress, as the main constituent, is quite unable to get away from its obsessive obeisance to the Family. Now Priyanka is being projected, with the help of the media, as the New Leader Waiting In The Wings; doubtless when her son or daughter grows up they too will be Future Leaders. In any event, whatever the reason, pitted against Vajpayee is Sonia Gandhi, the daughter-in-law, the wife, the mother. No manifestos, no parties, really; just two people, and a decision sought from the people — which of these two, and these two alone, should rule India. You see how much closer the process is to the US election.

And why not' Isn’t there, inherent in this process, the seeds of a kind of stability that we may formally deprecate but are secretly relieved that it’s there' At a time when India is on the verge of a great economic breakthrough — if forecasts are to be believed — and when, at the same time, there are very grave threats, not just from Pakistan (forget the goodwill and the cricket, all that can disappear with just one incident), but from insurgents and terrorists within the country, surely the need is for an outstanding personality to rule, not a group of squabbling, arguing old people whose arguments may leave the country weak and vulnerable'

There is also a very great danger that comes with this kind of stability, agreed. But that is the price we have to pay; nothing comes cheap, and there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

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