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Time for a Kamraj Plan

The Congress has to choose between collective suicide and a new leader

T Thomas  |  New Delhi 

The BJP must be stunned by its own unexpected sweep of three northern states in the recent elections. These results have some important implications for Indian politics in general.
First of all it has shown that Indian democracy is emerging as a mature two-party system, as in the US, UK and major democracies in the world.
The national parties are BJP and Congress. The communist party, which has survived only in Bengal and Kerala, is now as much a regional party as RJP, Samajwadi, BSP, Shiv Sena, TDP, DMK and AIADMK.
The second implication is that regional parties can and still do play a role in national politics but only in coalition with either of the national parties.
And the electoral success of the national parties, especially in the states, will in turn depend on their ability to forge alliances with regional parties.
In the recent elections BJP had made such alliances whereas Congress failed to do so, due to either arrogance or lack of imagination.
The third implication is that a party's record on economic progress is what the electorate even in the relatively backward Hindi-speaking states care about.
They are not carried away so much by caste and religion any more. Atal Behari Vajpayee and even Uma Bharti underplayed Hindutva and Ayodhya and focused on the BJP's record of liberalisation and privatisation and economic growth.
This is probably the most hopeful sign for the country, that we may be getting away from religion- and caste-based politics to real performance.
The other very significant implication is that ultimately it is the quality of leadership that makes the real difference between the two national parties.
In this respect a political party is very similar to a business organisation where the quality of leadership can make all the difference.
It is therefore worthwhile to analyse the role of a leader in politics as well as in business. The analysis will automatically show up the contrast between Mr Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi.
In a successful business organisation there is a succession plan which is prepared and implemented over a period of time.
The attempt will be to have more than one such potential candidate for the top slot, so that there is a choice in case something goes wrong with the identified candidates.
In politics also it is a desirable step to identify and groom a candidate for the top slot. Mr Vajpayee was chosen from among others and groomed by the BJP years ago as its parliamentary spokesman because of his abilities.
Ms Gandhi on the other hand was a reluctant entrant to politics and had no grooming under anyone. She was a devoted mother and housewife who found herself thrust into the position with virtually no preparation.
Her relative unfamiliarity with this country made it even more difficult. Being a foreigner by itself is not an insurmountable disadvantage. Annie Beasant and Mother Teresa were foreigners.
But they lived and mingled with ordinary Indians, and learnt their customs and idioms before they assumed any leadership role.
Ms Gandhi has never had a chance to be moulded into an Indian ethos. Her daughter, who was brought up in India, went to university and inherited real grassroots Indian culture, provides a sharp contrast.
The other attribute of a successful leader is the ability to think through and evolve an ideology or strategy for the business or political party which he or she is to lead.
This ability does not come without a lot of training and preparation and effort. It is usually evolved over many steps in the rungs of the organisational ladder which the candidate has to climb.
Mr Vajpayee has been fortunate to go through those rungs of the party which he leads today. Ms Gandhi never had that opportunity.
She is like an athlete pushed to the starting line in a race without any practice. And that too in the finals of a single race.
Because of his experience, Mr Vajpayee as a BJP leader has been able to persuade his party to get away from the old swadeshi ideas and adopt a domestic policy which is business friendly and pro-reform.
He virtually stole the mantle of economic reforms from the Congress party while Congress has continued to suffer from socialist pangs and Nehruvian anti-West postures.
Mr Vajpayee made a clean break from restrictive policies and took bold steps to widen the scope of Manmohan Singh's reform process, with younger able ministers like Arun Shourie and Arun Jaitley whom he backs fully.
In contrast Manmohan Singh now seems lost in Congress, with assignments that the "supreme leader" deigns to give him.
Quadrilateral national highways and linking of rivers are bold initiatives by Mr Vajpayee whilst Ms Gandhi still harps on poverty alleviation.
With increased rural prosperity, poverty is no more the main issue for the voters. Priorities now are the creation of jobs, provision of electricity, water and roads. Congress has yet to come up with a bold vision on these issues.
That brings us to the other major attribute of a successful leader, viz the ability to communicate and to inspire.
It will be no exaggeration to say that Winston Churchill won the Battle of Britain not in the air or the sea but in the hearts of the British people with inspiring speeches that bolstered their spirits during their darkest hours in the early 1940s.
Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru did it in India during our freedom struggle. Mr Vajpayee has a similar gift to inspire people with his words.
Ms Gandhi can speak only from written texts. Ronald Reagan was no great intellect and needed cue cards even during interviews.
But he had a sincerity and earthy style and training as an actor which endeared him to the American masses. Ms Gandhi has very few ideas of her own, no passion or eloquence in any major language. Nor has she been trained even as an actor.
Another quality in a good leader is to be able to consult others, including those who may not agree with you and then to evolve compromise solutions.
For this one needs confidence in oneself and a measure of openness. One cannot be petty and imperious with those who dissent.
Mr Vajpayee has shown a willingness to discuss and compromise, whether it is on Kashmir or on Ayodhya. The Opposition leader is not even able to contain dissent in her own party.
A good leader has the ability to choose and nurture a second line of younger leadership. For this the leader needs self-confidence and the ability to inspire younger people with ideas and a vision.
Mr Vajpayee and BJP have been able to gather a generation of bright people who can serve this purpose. Ms Gandhi and Congress have done the opposite by losing potential leaders and successors through the lack of ability to tolerate dissent.
The BJP leadership has been wise to separate the leadership of the party from leadership of the parliamentary party. It gives opportunity for some leaders to work for the party and play a role.
If only Ms Gandhi accepted this principle, Congress would have been much stronger with more able leaders working for the party, which is in dire need of a Kamraj plan.
Kamraj realised that as a Tamilian who could not communicate in Hindi or English, and he could never be the Prime Minister of India although he was a veteran of the freedom struggle, an undisputed leader in his own right and a very successful chief minister.
But he had the wisdom to realise his limitations and let Indira Gandhi take the national leadership. Today Sonia Gandhi needs the wisdom of Kamraj.
The Congress as a party is at a stage where it has to a make a choice "" whether to jump off a cliff and commit collective suicide with Ms Gandhi or to persuade her to play Kamraj.
While rallying the Democratic Party against George Bush Sr, Bill Clinton made a simple but profound statement that "It is the economy, stupid!" All discerning Congressmen should paraphrase Clinton and say, "It is our leadership, stupid!"

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First Published: Fri, December 26 2003. 00:00 IST