Is Indian Politics About ‘Personalities’ Or ‘Real Issues’?

The fact remains that in politics, personalities matter the most. A strong personality is like a ‘visual telegram’.

Published
Opinion
4 min read
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In the past five years, we have seen a sea change in India’s political landscape, both with the politics of business-as-usual crumbling into the dust, what with PM Modi’s singular dominance, and with voters becoming more and more politically aware thanks to a highly politicised public discourse. Amidst all of this, however, one key development stands out: the rise of the ‘cult personality’, like never before.

Indian politics, prior to Independence, was a many-hued constellation of stalwarts, all of whom shone brilliantly individually, but glittered in glorious togetherness under the common, overarching banner of India’s freedom struggle from British rule. Even though the heroes of our freedom struggle deigned to glorify their own selves at the cost of the larger ideal, the people were always eager to repose their faith in the individual more than any political unit or organised ideology.

Post-Independence Leaders

For instance, disillusionment with the Congress had set in as early as 1937, when it formed provincial governments in seven out of India’s eleven provinces under the new constitution embodied in the Government of India Act (1935), which granted provincial autonomy to Indians. The elected Congress politician had slowly devolved from providing good, constructive public service, to enjoying power and prestige. Why then, did the Congress party not lose public goodwill and cede political ground to either the Muslim League or the Krishak Praja Party? Because the people continued to hold their faith in personalities like Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, and Bose as the instruments of India’s independence, and not the Congress as a political unit.

After Independence, Indian politics saw a slew of political leaders who relied on their personal charisma and deep-rooted (sometimes dogmatic) ideologies to arouse the masses, and to reap rich political dividends — the ‘egalitarian socialist’ Nehru; the ‘iron lady’ Indira Gandhi; the ‘rationalist atheist’ CN Annadurai; the ‘hero of the Dalits’ Kanshi Ram — and many more.

However, at its most elemental, politics still operated on the all-too-familiar bed of coalitions, ideology, and povertarian governance.

Resurgence of ‘Cult Personality’

Today, Indian politics is seeing a resurgence of the ‘cult personality’ after an extended lull of over two decades, which was marked by politics of power-broking by regional satraps.

Today, the personality of a politician is getting more and more dissociated with the ideology that the politician’s party professes.

To moot, the rise of two important politicians offer constructive insights. First, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is the representation of strong nationalism and the aspirations of an upwardly mobile middle class. Since 2013, he seems to have managed to successfully change the perception of his party, the BJP, which used to be thought of as an upper-caste party. BJP has come to power twice consecutively riding the Modi wave. His cult is one which goes over and above the success/failure of his government’s schemes, daily political upheavals, and even caste, religious and class rifts. Second, Arvind Kejriwal, who in 2015 captained a young Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to a spectacular victory of 67/70 seats in Delhi, riding on his (then) magnetic personal charisma and unparalleled communication (of being an aam aadmi). In both the cases, even though ideology was present (still largely in an amorphous form) it was always subordinate to the man speaking at the stump.

Does Indian Politics Need More Policy than Emotion?

Is this rise of ‘cult personalities’ a good thing for Indian politics? Or does Indian politics need more of policy and ideologically sound arguments rather than ones which rely on emotion and bluster? The answer, unequivocally, is: personality trumps policy any day!

Many (so-called) liberals would have us believe that politics is not about personalities but about the ‘issues’. Supposedly, personalities are dispensable and transitory while issues are rooted deep, and hence acquire a permanency. These ‘liberals’, taking great care to sound politically correct, go on to say that it is only the rabid and headline-hunting fourth estate that stirs up such a fuss over personalities, when in reality, the common, toiling masses care only about jobs, healthcare and education.

The fact, however, remains, that in politics, personalities matter the most. A strong personality cult is like a visual telegram — elegant, impactful, and conveys a lot in a short span of time.

Personalities help the layman make sense of and process politics, and even governance. Electoral races come alive when individual leaders step forward to embody what would, without them, be abstract ideas. Whether it was Modi’s challenge to the Congress’s ‘legacy’ of 10 years in 2014, or Kejriwal’s challenge to the status quo in 2012, the Political Leader came to be the living embodiment of the cause — which resonated deeply with the masses.

Where Democracy Ends & Dictatorship Begins

But there is also a flip side to this — strong personalities often tend to degenerate into unchecked autocrats. Indeed, Nehru who was the ‘idea of India’ for 17 years after independence, once famously wrote:We want no Caesars”. The supremacy of personalities in our politics is not bad as long as the political leader is well aware of the nebulous line where democracy ends and dictatorship begins.

(Pranav Jain is an independent columnist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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