x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Dynastic politics jar with India's growing grassroots power

In state elections, Indian voters turn to regional parties, and away from national ones, because national politicians are seen as too distant from everyday concerns.

In the gathering storm over the decades that led to Indian independence in 1947, a key colonial argument against Indian nationalism was that India had never really been one nation state but an agglomeration of states. If the glue, also known as the British Empire, came unstuck, then things would simply fall apart.

The British finally left, and post partition India has since not only kept its border integrity, but the idea of India itself has flourished. Despite the enormous diversity, India has believed in itself.

This week, as results for five Indian state elections came in, you might have been reminded of the old colonial debate. India's largest province, Uttar Pradesh (population nearly 200 million), which is really several provinces rolled into one, voted into power a regional party called the Samajwadi, or Socialist, Party. Not only were the claims of the two major national parties, the centrist Congress and the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party roundly ignored, but both were trounced badly.

Then came Punjab's turn. Divided down the middle when India was partitioned in 1947, Punjab has never voted in the same government twice - except this time, as it rejected the Congress again and kept faith with yet another regional party, the Shiromani Akali Dal.

Clearly, India seems to be in the middle of an enormous transformation. Definitive statements are impossible in the context of such change, but it's evident that regional parties are striking a chord with voters because they are seen as intimates who understand local issues. National parties received a drubbing in Uttar Pradesh - a state that is widely seen as a bellwether to the national mood as it has 80 seats out of 545 in the federal parliament - because their leaders were seen to be city slickers living in faraway Delhi and out of touch with Lucknow, the provincial capital.

For Rahul Gandhi, son of Congress party president Sonia Gandhi and party general secretary, this rout is a personal debacle. In India, the Gandhi family is the democratic equivalent of royalty and Mr Gandhi is its heir-apparent. For several months before the Uttar Pradesh election, Mr Gandhi stormed the state in a helicopter, addressing several rallies a day, exhorting people to give the Congress party a chance.

They heard him - and cast their ballot in favour of the other Young Turk-equivalent, 38-year-old Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party. Mr Yadav benefited from voters' anger against outgoing chief minister and Dalit leader Mayawati, who people believed had squandered much of the province's wealth on monuments to herself and other Dalit leaders.

In contrast to Mr Gandhi, Mr Yadav campaigned across Uttar Pradesh in his car and on his bicycle, the party symbol, stressing his accessibility to the people.

Mr Yadav reinvented the party organisation on the ground. And he modernised the party, which, only five years ago under his father and former chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, had openly come out against the use of computers and the study of English in Uttar Pradesh's schools and colleges.

Explaining her party's abysmal performance, Sonia Gandhi noted that there had been too many leaders, a weak party organisation and bad party candidates. To this list she must add the unspoken fear that party faithful feel when they are around her and her children, Rahul and Priyanka. Up to the last, not one party leader was willing to criticise the Gandhis for their role in the rout.

If the Congress really wants to reinvent itself, the single most important thing it can do is to shed the perception of quasi-royal prerogative, wherein the king or queen does no wrong and all decisions must flow from the top.

If the message of the Uttar Pradesh polls is to be understood correctly, the opposite is happening in India. Democracy is taking root in the provinces, which is why voters are choosing local representatives rather than those who parachute in from outside.

To be fair to the Gandhis, they may be perfectly willing to listen to criticism. In fact, in India, the criticism of dynasty is a superficial one. Mr Gandhi did not fail in Uttar Pradesh because of the middle-class, largely urban obsession with his forefathers - after all, Mr Yadav is also the son of a major Indian politician, as are scores of other young politicians in India today - but because he wields power in a distant sort of way.

The stages in Mr Gandhi's Uttar Pradesh rallies were so far from the crowds - as per the security manual, considering all the assassinations in his family - that you had to strain your eyes to see the man. He spoke, he introduced the candidate and he moved on to the next rally.

That's no longer the way to win India. To capture hearts and minds you have to linger, talk to people, show passion and commitment. Even more important, you have to create a second and third-rung of leaders. In turn, they will create an organisation of party workers on the ground.

And if you can't do any of the above, you have to seek alliances with regional parties.

The Congress disdained offers by the Samajwadi party to ally in Uttar Pradesh, believing they would win enough seats to play kingmaker. The Samajwadi party and the Akali Dan won because they heard the heartbeats on the ground.

As for the colonial debate, you can trust the imperialists to have misread the country. India lives in its villages and in its districts, which is why provinces are disdaining so-called elitist, national parties. The message from India's polls is actually an inversion of the colonial argument. Perhaps that is why the country takes such pleasure in burying it.


Jyoti Malhotra is a political and foreign affairs analyst based in Delhi