Assembly election gets personal in UP

In the lead up to the recent Uttar Pradesh elections in India, the issue that caught the attention of most people was the emergence of Priyanka Gandhi (daughter of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi) and her husband Robert Vadra in the mainstream.

The rise of Mr Vadra was predictable as the son-in-law of a high-profile family but the rising popularity of Priyanka in Uttar Pradesh has raised a few eyebrows.

Though her campaign was not exhaustive as it was in Punjab and Uttara Khand, her resemblance to her famous grandmother (former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi) has initiated debate as to whether the younger of the siblings of the Nehru-Gandhi family should lead the Congress Party.

The debate began as Congress Party general secretary Rahul Gandhi drew heat for his inability to articulate on issues of concern in India.

Whether Rahul will lead the Congress Party to government in 2014 or Priyanka do so in the near future, the real issue is that the Party is ready to look past the Dr Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi era in which two charismatic people from the same family will occupy the central stage.

It is also true that Priyanka has created debate on the rebirth of personality politics.

However, the larger issue is whether this charisma will help them to revive the party and reinstate it in the seat of power.

Some imponderables

The answer is hard to predict but it is true that in a democracy, charisma can be both an asset and a hindrance.

Great leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, John F Kennedy and Bill Clinton have been popular but their tenures were replete with problems that were more self-created than those imposed from outside.

Party structures in a democracy do not function to pick leaders who have the qualities or the charisma. The party structure, especially in a parliamentary system of government, works to provide loyalties to the existing leadership and not for independent thinkers.

Therefore, the rise of Priyanka has raised a few curious issues, since she would not be occupying the backbenches of Parliament.

The moment she announces her intention to be a parliamentarian, she would be accorded a rousing welcome and offered the top job either as the Prime Minister in the government or as the leader of the Congress Party.

This is precisely the reason why in a parliamentary system of government, the appointment of Prime Minister is based on the capabilities of a leader, with years of experience as a lawmaker.

The classic example is that of former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, who attainted fame both for his eccentricity and wartime leadership.

But he proved to be a man fit for the job with 40 years of experience as a parliamentarian.

Sharp contrast

Contrast this to the person in Dr Manmohan Singh, the current Prime Minister of India. While his understanding of policies is exemplary and his commitment to public service is beyond question, he lacks the qualities of leadership and charismatic authority.

It is a ‘grand paradox’ that democracy will routinely demand leaders but cut them down to size if they lead too much or claim too much.

Balaji Chandramohan is our Correspondent based in New Delhi, India.

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