BJP president Amit Shah likes to make the point that the BJP is the only political party with internal democracy. “After my term as president, does anyone know who will be next? Can this be said about any other party?’’ he asks. Shah’s verbal barb is aimed not just at the Congress, but at almost all political parties today. The 132-year-old Congress, which once had a proud tradition of representing views from far right to the extreme left, is now reduced to a one-family affair. Though a precise and pedantic Narasimha Rao once quibbled that the Nehru-Gandhi domination cannot be dubbed as dynastic rule since you have “an agnate then a cognate and then an agnate’’. Sophistry aside, when it’s all in the family, it counts as dynastic rule, even if Congresspersons keep protesting that the family is democratically elected by the party and the people. Today Congresspersons may grumble privately that Rahul Gandhi does not have it in him to be party president, but, ironically, the only alternative solution they dare to voice is Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.
Over the years, the sting has been taken out of the charge of dynastic politics with many former critics aping the Congress. Lalu Prasad is the president of the RJD and, in his absence, his kith and kin preside. In the DMK, an ageing M Karunanidhi has appointed M K Stalin his heir. Mulayam Singh Yadav anointed his son Akhilesh, even if he now has second thoughts. Other regional parties, including the Shiv Sena, NCP, TDP, TRS and the YSR Congress etc, are cut from the same dynastic cloth. Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee may be single, but even they trust completely only family members. Nitish Kumar is the exception. He has not promoted his engineer son, but there is no denying that he alone calls the shots in the JD(U).
Does the BJP really differ from these family-run parties? The answer is both yes and no. Instead of one family, it is the Sangh Parivar which has the final say. Shah is correct when he asserts that it is not known who the next BJP party president will be. But that doesn’t mean that the BJP is a shining example of inner-party democracy. Of all Indian political parties, the Communists may be a tad better than most, though elections are a farce. The BJP, on paper, may go through the motions of a poll process but elections are a mere formality with a show of hands. Whether it is the parliamentary board, the national executive, the newly formed Margdarshak Mandal (has it even met?), the national council and the state councils, the members are selected by a handful of top leaders in consultation with the RSS pointperson in the BJP. The local units have little say.
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Amit Shah’s name was announced as party president three years ago in July, well before the actual forum for the election, the national council, gave its stamp of approval. So who actually chose Shah for the post? Prime Minister Narendra Modi, impressed by the organisational skills of his fellow Gujarati that won him the 2014 parliamentary elections. Similarly, in the selection of past BJP presidents, the national council was simply the rubber stamp which ratified the choice. Only the selection process may have differed. Then it was a delicate balancing act between the wishes of the RSS and seniority which decided the names. L K Advani ended up a three-time president because of his seniority and survival instincts. After the BJP’s 2009 defeat, Nitin Gadkari was anointed largely by the RSS, which wanted the Nagpur boy. The BJP, nonetheless, claims a greater democratic spirit than other parties since at party forums, even if nominated, in the past, there was a good deal of give-and-take before arriving at decisions.
Shah was under 50 when he assumed office as party boss, but he is nevertheless the most powerful president ever. Even Advani, in his heyday, did not command such clout. Shah’s control of the party is so complete that there is much less inclination to accommodate the wishes of other senior leaders. At the three-year Modi government anniversary meet with Cabinet ministers and the press this May, it was clear that Shah was the first among unequals. (Only Prime Minister Modi is above him.) The mutual accommodation seen earlier has given way to a sole arbiter whose writ runs practically unchallenged in the party. As long as he is successful, the present autocratic rule will continue. If Shah fails at the hustings, then presumably a greater degree of democracy will creep back into the party.