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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 12 New Delhi March 12, 2016

Leaders beyond Stereotype

Saturday 12 March 2016, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

In the midst of the pressure and pulls of contemporary politics, certain significant developments seem to have escaped notice. Some of these are too conspicuous, and yet one hardly finds any serious endeavour to understand them.

The two most disciplined political parties today have leaders who are known to be extraordinarily independent of the mindset of their parties. Nobody can question Atal Behari Vajpayee’s standing as the foremost leader of the BJP or his national eminence. And yet at the table talk in political circles, he is not counted as a dyed-in-the-wool leader. Here is a top leader who does not typify the BJP in his approach and understanding of events and yet the party stands to gain by his presence.

Under a different set of circumstances, the CPI-M faces a similar predicament. The calculated fashion in whicih the West Bengal Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu, has given publicity to his differences with his party over shouldering the responsibility of leading the United Front makes his a unique case in the annals of the communist movement. Known for its iron discipline, the party finds that its most well-known leader has publicly aired his differences with the top leadership. Although Basu has repeated his criticism of the majority of the Central Committee, it is strange that the party leadership has not issued any explanation of the episode, nor has it responded to the sharp criticism.

It is necessary to understand what such extraordinary happenings—Basu in the CPI-M and Vajpayee in the BJP—really indicate. Both the cases, no doubt, have dealt a blow to the belief that their parties are made of tested steel, but that does not provide a clue as to why such eminent leaders have not hesitated to ride roughshod over the traditional concept of party discipline.

Stalin was credited with having told his party that once a political line was settled, the organisation decided everything. But the never pondered over a situation in which the political line itself was muddled. No doubt, the Soviet Communist Party would have gained in strength and quality if Stalin and his colleagues had conceded that when a political line itself got into a rut, consultation and consensus might be preferred to purges and liquidation. A political line might seem to be sound at a particular point of time, but when the times change or new developments take place the old line would be ineffective, if not suicidal. The mindset of a party follows that of its leadership. And the leadership finds itself in a state of inertia when confronted with a new sitution, which may be without precedent. That is the point when a stereotyped political line may turn out to be disastrous. It may also be a case of an opportunity being missed.

In such a situation, a perceptive leader has to strike out a new line and do his utmost to persuade the party to change. There are, of course, memorable examples of great leaders having failed to carry their parties along the new lines. The question then arises: should they publicise the shortcomings of the leadership and bring it into discomfiture?

There are example from the freedom struggle. When Gandhiji emerged in 1916, he might have felt that the Congress leaders were in a state of unreality and therefore ineffective. But he could hardly expect to change the situation or the Congress overnight. It was only the hour of awakening. Two decades later, in the mid-thirties, Jawaharlal Nehru had similar feelings about the Congress being in a state of paralysis after the British repression had smashed up Gandhiji’s civil disobedience movement. Nehru at that time wrote a series of articles under the caption “Whither India”.

Later, when he himself became the Congress President, Nehru tried to instil a new awakening in the party which gave birth to the Left on the national political agenda. After the 1942 movement, Nehru went through many bouts of rethinking but these did not take a definite point of view, while he himself got embroiled in the intricate details on the transfer of power compounded with the partition of the country. Fifty years after, it is time for us to re-examine the question of partition, but it was not possible for Nehru to rethink it as he himself was directly inovlved in the searing operation, thanks to the extraordinary hold of Mountbatten on him. Only towards the end of his days, did Nehru try to restructure his political philosophy but it was too late in the day. By that time, the Indian state had become well set and nobody challenged its premises.

Now, a new situation has arrived. Social and political digits have changed and are changing fast. The economic model set up on the ruins of colonialism has become outworn and cynicism has grown in direct portion to corruption in public life. In such a situation, it is no surprise to find eminent leaders differing with the parties that they themselves have helped build and are still serving.

However, the questions raised by Vajpayee and Basu need to tbe examined in depth. Basu’s expectations of the United Front by shouldering responsibility with it may turn out to be illusory. But the fact that the old digits of politics have to make room for new digits cannot be disputed.

The political line of most of the parties has to change if these have to look beyond their present paradigms. This is precisely what Vajpayee might have felt in the two weeks of his Prime Ministership, when he and his party could not win over allies, as every ally has had some reservations about the BJP.

Thus despite its preponderance over other parties in terms of seats, the BJP could not infuse a new wave of enthusiasm in them for joining hands with the BJP. In a different set of circumstances, Basu found that the majority of his party’s leadership had come to a dead end in its politics and was unprepared for an earth-shaking shift even when a Communist leader was offered the opportunity to lead a United Front Government.

Although these two cases can by themselves be hardly regarded as a leadership crises, there is no doubt that the two leaders have emerged, in the public eye, as being more significant and wide-ranging than their parties. While it has almost become a truism that political parties today have become grievously inadequate to serve large sections, it is doubly clear that there has not yet emerged a hardcore of leadership which can infuse a new life into parties striving to rebuild themselves. The recent elections, by-elections, as also the Punjab Assembly poll have shown that the major parties have turned bankrupt in ideas and outlook. Rigidity in thinking and perception leads to a state of atrophy. What Vajpayee and Basu signify is their capacity not to be complacent with time-worn formulations and clichés, and the urge for a new thinking, an overhauling of political understanding. This by itself is a sign of hope, but one can hardly be complacent. Complaints alone would not do. The question is not that the world has to be changed, but how to change it.

The instrumentality of politics forged at the time of independence has brought the parties to a dead end today. Even with the best of will, none of them can revive itself into a robust organ. The Congress is in a state of disintegration, totally unaware of how to make it a going concern. The BJP is active but has not been able to strike out on new areas of mass activity. The Communists have got back their acceptability in national politics but have yet to diagnose why they have not yet been able to give up their old mindset. Other parties do not count on the national stage.

If the blueprint of the future of the Indian republic has to be prepared, it has to come out of the labours of these three major strands of politics. At the moment, they are in separate compartments. But the more perceptive of their leaders have to work out in their own way a national objective, an image of India that embraces the entire penumbra of politics. Today, there is little sign of their coming together. At the same time, they have to realise that no headway can be made single-handedly. How then shall come the reawakening? The leadership that is able to respond convincingly to this question will be the helmsman of this great country.

(Mainstream, March 8, 1997)

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