The phrase “collective responsibility’’ has suddenly acquired a new status at a time of massive defeats. Political parties are waking up to the idea that not one leader was responsible for the debacle they have suffered but the entire leadership was. This, on the face of it, might seem like a piece of self-evident wisdom, since in a democratic political party one individual should not dominate decision-making. Apart from the fact that this is not true in the case of most political parties, which run according to the diktats of one leader — president or general secretary, call the leader what one will — there is a more cynical reason for invoking the principle of “collective leadership’’. It is an alibi for clinging to power and office. It is also a refusal to accept moral responsibility. This is most evident in the case of the Congress, which is run like a family firm, with hardly a voice ever heard against the views of the Gandhis, mother and son. Here the refusal to accept responsibility is an act of delusion. The acceptance of responsibility does not mean the reading out of a meaningless statement. It demands more radical steps like relinquishing leadership. It is amazing that Sonia Gandhi could resist the lure of prime ministership but finds it impossible, after a spectacular defeat, to resign as president of the Congress.
It has become part of the political culture of India that leaders refuse to give up the positions they hold, irrespective of their age and falling performance. L.K. Advani of the Bharatiya Janata Party is by any reckoning an old man but he refuses to retire, he still yearns to hold office. This is odd in a culture that once spoke of the need of vanaprastha, the age at which an individual should voluntarily retire from social life to go and live in the forests. The wisdom of the ancients saw this kind of retirement as a moral obligation, an integral part of the various stages an individual’s life goes through. The attitude of Prakash Karat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) offers a different perspective of the same phenomenon. He is the general secretary of the CPI(M) and yet he is untouched by any defeat or debacle. He has presided over the eradication of the CPI(M) from West Bengal, but he is not responsible; a vague “collective’’ is. The failure to claim responsibility for defeat and the refusal to step down because of age are both signs of how devoid of morality Indian politics is.