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.