Indian democracy was always proclaimed to be different; to add to this difference is now the story of the run-up to the upcoming general elections that is being fought like a Presidential election around two likely candidates for the post of the Prime Minister, within a parliamentary system of democracy.
Since the time of the economic reforms, the difference in the political programme between political parties has become almost negligible, and therefore the significance of political parties has been supplanted by personalities.
One might offer a sustained critique of dynasty politics being inimical to the sensibilities of a good democracy, but the facelessness brought to the political process with all major national parties speaking a similar language of growth and development, dynasties and families at least serve the purpose for the common man of pinning down responsibilities, and demanding concessions.
It is the same context which has made individual personalities more important than even the political parties they represent. It is interesting to observe that in the conditions laid down by Nitish Kumar as to who is an acceptable candidate to lead the NDA, among other criteria he also pointed towards a person without `rough edges`. Never before was this the case in the history of Indian electoral politics.
The growing clout of the corporate sector and presence of urban middle classes has made Narendra Modi the leading choice. Added to this is the amenability of his aggressive posturing to the requirements of the media. `Mediatisation of politics` has also made electoral politics more personality-centric than party-centric.
Though this is not a settled question as of now, since the Sangh Parivar needs to keep its options open in an era of coalition politics, and need to confirm, even if Modi is ostensibly the most popular leader, if he can sustain the confidence of other political parties, given the kind of Hindutva-brand of politics he stands for. L K Advani could well be the dark horse; he is already looking and sounding like a moderate.
Not very long back he represented the Hindutva-brand of politics that Modi is now a symbol for, and his rabid posturing then lead to a consensus around Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the moderate who can sustain a coalition. There is no reason why this story cannot repeat itself, and looks like a possible way out for the likes of Nitish Kumar to keep his ties with the BJP, along with his secular credentials.
Rahul Gandhi, on the other hand, is torn between a dual power-centre model of governance, where Manmohan-Montek symbolise growth and he has, rather unsuccessfully, attempted to stand for a pro-poor rhetoric. He supported the tribals in Niamgiri, he has recently in his speech for the CII spoken of village pradhans and a bottom-up mobilisation.
Such rhetoric has to be backed by a firm model of welfare state, but what we have now in India is a string of welfare policies without a welfare regime. Welfare has been pursued only to further legitimise economic reforms, as a secondary discourse and thus Rahul Gandhi also looks like playing a second-fiddle and is perceived to be uninitiated.
Added to this is his disinterest in building a persona that is amenable to mediatisation. In the process, he neither symbolises a rabid reforms process and high-growth mania, like Chidambaram does, nor does he symbolise an old Mai-baap state that patronises the poor. As electoral results in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have signified, he remains a non-symbol. What can at the most be a face-saving device for him could be his dynasty.
It is this space that then opens up for the `Third-Front` experiment. In the consensus on economic reforms and FDI, regional parties have taken to symbolic protests, even if many of them in terms of their party programme remain committed to FDI.
While centre and the national represent the global, the regional and the states have come to represent the local, and those social groups outside the urban middle class that have not gained so much, and might stand to lose with the globalisation of the economy.
It is in context that even Chandrababu Naidu, who once epitomised the imagery of a CEO (which interestingly Modi has claimed for himself now), has off-late realised the importance of agriculture and has been campaigning for the farmers in Andhra Pradesh.
It is this agenda of agriculture and the interests of local and regional capital at one level, and numbers in a coalition era that will open or close the leadership options for the likes of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Nitish Kumar.
Here, it is certainly not the personality that will be the mainstay of their campaigns. These aspirants are also less likely to find a favourable media, given their alternative agenda, and also the modality of their politics and personalities that look less swanky, and less aesthetic to a sanitised and an insular urban discourse of the media.
(The writer teaches at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)