That subjects meekly accept their leader’s choice of a successor against their natural instincts is something to ponder about.

The passing away of Balasaheb Thackeray, who played a very important role in the politics of Maharashtra by defining the main terms of its discourse over the last 40 years, raises several issues for Indian politics. The obvious one, debated extensively, is the politics of identity, defined not merely as a social identity, but also simultaneously as an adversarial one vis-à-vis other religious, regional or caste identities. Another obvious one is the use of non-state force to ensure compliance from the public to all manner of diktats from the party. A third, perhaps arising directly from the first two, is the cult nature of several Indian political parties. There is, however, one issue that has not been identified and discussed. This is of succession, not in terms of who will succeed the founder of the party — the widespread adoption of the dynastic principle is troubling enough — but also, equally if not more importantly, the quiet acceptance by the people of the legitimacy that mere birth is seen to confer. That the leader of a political party will want one of his progeny to succeed him or her is part of human nature; but that the members of that party will meekly accept this rule of succession is not. That they do so across the spectrum — only two political parties, the BJP and CPM are exceptions — speaks volumes about the political judgments and preferences of the Indian people. The fault, as Cassius who told Brutus, “is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings.” Cassius was reminding Brutus that everyone has equal rights and that no one may claim a divine right for himself (or herself) for his or her family to rule.

Britain challenged this claim (the monarch’s divine right to rule) as far back as the early 17th century – as befits a nation of shopkeepers, over something as mundane as the privilege of the king to impose a tax on kishmish — and resolved it over the next 100 years. In the 18th century, the US followed its example in shaping its political preferences. Europe followed suit in the 19th century. But the 20th century has deviated from this path, even though an unprecedented number of countries have adopted electoral democracy as a mode of choosing their rulers, with several of them having implicitly accepted the principle of divine right. That this right is legitimised through the ballot instead of scores of priests chanting from the scriptures is not proof enough of a transition from feudal political beliefs. Paul Samuelson’s theory of revealed preference doesn’t, or shouldn’t, be applied here.

In India, the problem is compounded by two other factors. One is challenges posed by siblings and other blood relatives. The other is the absence of legal heirs because of the marital status of the supreme leaders. Indians need to worry over the post-Founder phases in several large regional political parties, and indeed one large national one. The time has come to give the process of succession in political parties a serious thought, and not sweep it under the carpet just because it is inconvenient.

(This article was published on November 18, 2012)
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