Lalu leads the way, state leaders hog limelight

Arguably, the biggest news about the recently concluded Assembly election in Bihar was the return of Lalu Prasad in the electoral arena with a vengeance, leading his party campaign almost singlehanded to gain maximum seats for his party and enable the JD(U)-RJD alliance to score a massive victory over the BJP.

This, when till the other day, the political career of Lalu was being written off by political pundits, especially after his conviction in the fodder scam and his own family members losing one election after another, most recently in 2014. The ‘Lalu effect’ was evident also in the way the tone and tenor of the whole campaign was dictated by him, especially in the later phases.

Unexpected electoral success of Lalu in alliance with Nitish Kumar, another quintessential state leader and JD (U) boss, draws attention to the rising significance of the state level leaders as compared to ‘national’ leaders. Arguably, in 2014 elections, the BJP’s landslide victory especially in the Hindi-speaking states were as much due to ‘Modi wave’ as the popularity of state leaders of the party like Raman Singh, Shivaraj Chauhan and Vasundhara Raje Scindia. And then, the ‘regionalist’ parties’ leaders like Naveen Patnaik, Mamata Bannerjee, Jayalalitha and K Chandrashekhar Rao were able to check the BJP juggernaut like Lalu Prasad/Nitish Kumar combine have done in Bihar.

What explains state leaders’ ability to retain their social support base in the long-term, even when it seems to be slipping occasionally like in the case of Lalu and Chandrababu Naidu? How are these ‘new’ state leaders different from the ‘old’ regional satraps like P S Kairon, Y S Parmar, S Nijalingappa, K Kamraj, B C Roy, M L Sukhadia, S K Sinha, D P Mishra, R S Shukla, Atulya Ghosh, Biju Patnaik or Vasantdada Patil, to name just a few from Nehruvian India?

The first and foremost reason behind the rising power and influence of the new crop of state leaders in recent India is the emergence of states as the effective arena where politics and economy unfolds increasingly, giving primacy to local/regional over national in determining electoral behaviour. This goes in favour of the state parties led by ‘the leader/supremo’ as their claims to safeguard the state’s interests at all costs receives sympathetic hearing by the electorates.

Second, the clout of these state leaders lording over their parties is much to do with the steady caste/community-based support base they receive in their personal capacity. The caste groups these leaders belong to or claim to represent more often than not, are numerically strong. Numbers matter the most in the single plurality electoral system, especially if there is a multi-polar contest as is the case with most of the states. With the mode of democratic politics remaining ‘patrimonial’ in a resource-scarce economy of India, castes/communities acting as ‘political’ categories tend to cling to their ‘own’ leaders, not only for ‘psychic good’ (asmita) but in the ‘realistic’ hope of being the beneficiary of state patronage and protection.

This is especially true of the newly mobilised and assertive castes/communities. Even the smaller identity groups tend to feel that state level ‘social justice’ parties in power are much more receptive to their concerns, like one witnessed in the case of mahadalits and ‘atipichda’ in Bihar. 

Third, organisational and ideological weakness along with the ‘convergence’ of electoral agenda across the party lines has also brought to fore the criticality of leadership factor.
Personal charisma.

Depending more on their personal charisma and sphere of influence than the deliberately weakened/non-existent party machinery, leaders like Lalu make and unmake the parties on their own terms. Electorates are expected and do vote in the name of the leader and not the candidates and much less for the party programmes (if there are any).

Fourth, there is also criticality of electoral finance as elections keep happening and they require funds. Personal control over the party funds goes a long way in enabling the state party bosses to bypass the party apparatus in distributing tickets and funds. For the leader, thus, party becomes the channel through which personal wealth and party funds are accumulated that in turn need to pass on to the family members for safe custody and also to run the ‘family business’ smoothly even when out of power.

Fifth, what adds to the clout of the state party bosses, especially when in power, is their access to huge political resources- organisation, money, votes, thus enabling them even to compete with such a ‘resourceful’ national leader as Narendra Modi, as was on evidence in Bihar elections. How to compare the ‘new’ state parties’ leaders with the ‘old’ regional satraps of ‘Congress era’?  In terms of their social origins, both genres of leaders have, with few exceptions, come from numerically strong land-owning peasant castes and communities though after ‘Mandal’ there has been a gradual shift from upper/forward castes to middle and upper backward peasant castes.

The difference, however, lies in terms of the nature of their politics and policies as earlier they were governed not so starkly by narrow considerations of caste and community as of now. Active participation in the nationalist movement, cushioning effect of belonging to the dominant party, and steeped in modern liberal-socialist ideology/idiom had enabled the state leaders of bygone era to rise considerably over and above the narrow/parochial considerations of the archetypal ‘new’ state leader like Lalu.

This explains as to why many of the state leaders like G B Pant, Y B Chauhan or Morarji Desai could easily shift to the national politics whereas the present leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav even when they qualify themselves as ‘national’ leader and shifting to Delhi, their primary attention/ concern hovers around their own states and worse, their narrow voting constituency.

(The writer is Professor, Department of Political Science, Panjab University, Chandigarh)

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