Foreign and Defense Policy, India

BJP succession blues in India

Image Credit: World Economic Forum/Photo by Nortber Schiller (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Image Credit: World Economic Forum/Photo by Nortber Schiller (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Over the past week, I’ve written twice about India’s Bharatiya Janata Party and its attempts to unite behind a popular but polarizing new leader: Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. In a nutshell, I’ve argued that Mr. Modi represents a dramatic generational change for India’s principal opposition party, and that he faces large structural obstacles in his quest to become India’s next prime minister.

One obstacle I underestimated was the difficulty that the BJP, like most Indian parties, has with non-family-based political succession. Unlike the West, where leadership change is an often contentious but ultimately routine affair, India struggles with this aspect of democracy. (Paradoxically, the transfer of power from one party to another works like clockwork.) In most political parties, leadership is passed from generation to generation like a family heirloom. As I pointed out in Foreign Policy last year, in terms of longevity the House of Nehru-Gandhi, which runs the ruling Congress Party, matches the House of Saud.

Traditionally, the BJP, which prides itself on spurning the principle of dynastic succession, has answered the succession question in another time-honored Indian way: by deferring to seniority. The party, or more accurately its predecessor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, last witnessed a real change of guard 40 years ago, when Lal Krishna Advani took charge along with (future prime minister) Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

While ill-health has taken Vajpayee out of the equation, Advani, a sprightly 85-year-old, refuses to fade gracefully. Earlier today, he resigned from all party positions to protest the BJP’s decision to make Modi the head of its campaign committee, a clear signal that he is now the party’s presumptive prime ministerial candidate. The BJP leadership, apparently worried about the fallout of a public rift with its senior-most leader, has refused to accept the resignation. But nor have they given in to Advani’s implicit demand — for Modi’s wings to be clipped.

How the drama plays out remains to be seen, but it’s clear that the BJP needs to develop a set of guidelines to prevent such embarrassments in the future. Enforcing a mandatory retirement age of 75 may be a good place to start. Adopting a version of the US system of primaries may be another. Ensuring greater ideological coherence — belief in a core set of principles to guide economic, foreign and social policy — would also help.

Alternatively, the party can stick with the old playbook: anoint Modi as the new leader, and forget about the succession issue for another couple of decades.

2 thoughts on “BJP succession blues in India

  1. Mr.Dhume, it is not about Advani’s ambition to become the PM. It is incorrect to paint his opposition to anointing Modi on those lines. Let me quote that I read which captures the so called ‘sulk’ of Advani accurately.

    “LK Advani may be the last voice of reason in a party that seems consumed by the hype surrounding a man who has done little for the party except in one state. Advani knows that on a national front Modi may not be the force he is projected to be, and in the Gujarat Chief Minister’s case he has earned a reputation that precedes him, and could well damage ties and alliances even before they are formed. Other BJP leaders may see the pitfalls of elevating Modi to a point from which there is no return for the party, but few have the influence or power to prevent it. Advani, irrespective of Modi’s supporters admit it or not, is one of the few leaders who can be a stumbling block for Modi. Whether Advani is the voice of reason or not, only time will tell, but in a party where few seem to be able to express their frank opinion regarding Modi, it is important for the party to have a counter-weight to the Gujarat Chief Minister to ensure the party has some allies by the time the next elections come around ”

    What Modi represents may be music for the BJP cadres but they alone don’t vote in elections to help bring the seats. It will be suicidal for BJP to fall into the trap of Modi hype and embark on a election strategy that is sure to result in NDA losing yet one more opportunity to defect UPA. The Modi bhakts are barking up the wrong tree by attributing Advani’s opposition to his ambition to become PM. Nopes, that isn’t the case however much you may a Modi fan.

  2. With reference to what Mr Aslam has written, I think BJP has taken a gamble and projected Modi , and will cross the bridge regarding alliances when the time comes depending on the numbers. So what Advani is doing is putting his own ego before the party.

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