From Narendra Modi to Rahul Gandhi and the regional one-man and one-woman shows, India is now dominated by individual brands which have transcended political parties and institutions.
The AIADMK becomes a million Jayalalithaas and the TMC becomes alive with an epidemic of Mamatas of the organisation, her biography becomes its history, her goals its sole mission. The conflation of individual and leaders is complete. Such is the power of politics. Such is the power of memory, that the very myth, the presence, of Mamata keeps the Trinamool alive. When years ago, Dev Kant Barooah was echoing the sycophantic principle ‘India is Indira, Indira is India’, he was emphasising not just the power of charisma but also the importance of sycophancy in our organisations. Between sycophancy and fan worship, a leader can create history and meaning in lives which are otherwise powerless.
Not everyone can be the head of a single-leader party. You have to go beyond mass appeal, combine archetype and stereotype, smell of heroic possibility. Think of Jayalalithaa. She was a film star, matched against MGR. MGR was divinity. Even gods would have thought twice before challenging him in Indian politics. I remember when he had a cold drink. The remnants were sprinkled like sacred water on the listeners. Jaya shares in that mythology. She conveys a sense of motherhood, but her nurturing power is for society, not for the particularity of any family. She is millennial. Even gods did not shower such an excess of goods on humanity. Jaya is a myth born in the everydayness of politics. Single, with a singularity only a single party leader could have.
Mamata is made of equivalent legends. She is Rani Jhansi of the Streets. She is the angry woman battling the CPI(M) on the streets. She is a proletarian queen, unabashed in her commitment to the streets. Which other ruler would turn protest and incessant protest into an act of governance? She is unquestioned in her commitment to her idea of politics. She is simple, yet her very eloquence stems from the alchemical power of her simplicity.
Both are ascetic, both can indulge in excess while engaging in protest and power. Both go beyond the ordinary ideas of good and evil. Full of surprises, they can demand more than loyalty from their followers. The unique hybridity of myth, lifestyle, symbolic violence that enables an ordinary citizen, an unemployed man, a housewife, a student to feel a sense of the magical. Such “single leaders” cannot be secular constructs. They have to have a blend of folklore, a touch of myth, an epic quality, a magic of the everyday. There is also a third world quality one associates with them. Think of Cameron, Obama and Trump. All of them look simple cutouts next to the elaborate hoardings of Mamata and Jaya. They embrace multiplicities of time and emotion and therefore demand a semiotic analysis beyond the ordinary politician.
One leader is one universe, where the followers find a home, a sense of meaning, of belonging. Worship, sycophancy, hysteria have to be a part of these worlds where the leader is both authoritarian and benign. The oneness of the one leader focuses and concentrates power. Shared power becomes banal and one leader gives a sense of unity and concentration. In fact, I could almost vouch, whatever the fate of the Centre, almost all enduring regional leaders will come from this mould. As the Centre becomes bureaucratic, our regional leaders as a counter will be single, singular, and, through their sheer durability, create that strange idea of opposition to central forces. Without myth, charisma, such a dynamic cannot work.