Presidential ego or a dynast’s charm — what Indian voters like is still a mystery to the country’s politicians

Presidential ego or a dynast’s charm — what Indian voters like is still a mystery to the country’s politicians

  • India’s two leading political parties have distinctly different approaches to the election.
  • But India’s diverse democracy may be tougher to crack than what politicians think.
The media coverage of the upcoming elections in India is focussed on a sensational standoff between Rahul Gandhi, the President of the Indian National Congress, and the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, representing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

What makes this a logical fallacy is the fact that India has parliamentary government. Voters elect local leaders to the Parliament, who then elect the prime minister.

BJP is betting on Modi’s charm to repeat the sweeping victory it managed in 2014. Recently, Amit Shah, the President of the BJP, said that the fight in 2019 will be a case of “Modi versus all” describing Modi as the “most popular leader in the world.”

Congress has been relentless in calling out BJP’s obsession with Modi. “The issue shouldn’t be about who is going to be the Prime Minister, but who is going to be representing your interests to the government as a member of Parliament. To try and reduce our parliamentary system to a presidential one by saying that its Modi versus ‘x’ or ‘y’ is actually an injustice to the system,” professed Congress leader Shashi Tharoor at the Jaipur Literature Fest on Thursday.

“I will come with a deep and experience bench of qualified people to work with me and help me solve your problems,” Tharoor said explaining how Congress looks at political leadership.


Presidential ego or a dynast’s charm — what Indian voters like is still a mystery to the country’s politicians
Shashi Tharoor in conversation with Mihir Sharma at the Jaipur Literature Fest on Thursday, 24 January, 2019Business Insider

Dynasty politics

What Tharoor deftly downplayed was the fact that Congress has been circling around dynastic leaders — the Gandhis more than any other, for decades now. Rahul Gandhi, the current president of the party, is a striking picture of privilege. His father, his grandmother and his great grandfather have been prime ministers of the country. And now, he is in the race to be the next head of the Indian state.

Just this week, Congress appointed Rahul’s sister Priyanka Gandhi as the general secretary of Uttar Pradesh East, which is a politically significant region home to constituencies represented by heavyweights in BJP including Modi and the current state chief minister, Yogi Adityanath.

The dynastic flavour of the Congress extends beyond the Gandhi family. Some of the other big leaders like Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot, who hold high positions within the party, come from political families that have been strong party loyalists for generations.

'Kaamdar' versus the 'naamdar'

“It was said today that I cannot see eye to eye with them. Who am I to see eye to eye? I am from a poor family. You are naamdar (of a legacy name), I am kaamdar (an ordinary worker).”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at an election rally in Rajasthan two months ago.

Modi’s attacks on the entitled Congress top brass yielded great results in 2014. The BJP earned a full majority and decimated the incumbent United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to just 44 seats.

Five years since, Modi has cultivated a personality cult around him within the BJP. He campaigns for every election in every state — big or small — even if it is at the cost of time that he would have spent thinking through some policy decisions more deeply.

Every party spokesperson showers praises on Modi for every policy decision as if the government has no other minister working. This can be a double-edged sword in a complicated democracy like India.

The coming elections

As the next election comes closer, the BJP and its allies have lost a lot of ground with the voters. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by Modi is likely to lose nearly one third of its seats in the lower house of the parliament — the Lok Sabha, according to a survey. As Modi took all the praise for the victories hitherto, he will have to take the blame for the fall, if any.

But the rejection of Modi’s presidential aura does not reflect a revival in the appeal for the Congress’ franchised leadership. The votes that BJP may lose in the coming elections, are likely to get divided between many regional parties, other than Congress. No one party is expected to secure a clear majority in 2019, according to the same survey.

If BJP wins the election, the narrative will skewed toward blaming Congress for its corrupt past and obsession with political dynasties. If the Congress wins the election, the BJP will be blamed for its high-handed approach to policy making and disdain for communal politics.

It is difficult to disagree when Sachin Pilot says, “Nationalism is trying to be equated the Hinduism. And people are needing certificates for how nationalist you are. And people who are reading the contract are deciding how good of a Indian you are… It’s outside the Constitution. We must stand against that.”

However, the same people of India voted Modi and BJP to power despite its shortcomings. The same way Congress, which has been tainted by a slew of corruption scandals in not so distant past, is now a party that won three out of the five state polls held in November 2018, just months before the next general elections.

While the media can keep asking voters if they like Gandhi or Modi, the answers will never reflect the true depth of the Indian democracy.

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