Power of one

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.

 A decade back, the distinguished scientist C.V. Seshadri and I were discussing organisations. He half seriously suggested he was proposing to shut down the the organisation he built, the Murugappa Chettiar Research Centre in Chennai, and begin again. “Every trace of founders and ancestors must be erased, all kinship links with mediocre successors clipped,” he said. Seshadri was being ironic but he was making a sociological point that Indians tend to create person-centric organisations. In an almost oxymoronic resolution, the person is the organisation in its compressed iconicity. When founders die, we tend to perpetuate them, devastating the idea of succession, institutionalisation and organisational routine. Seshadri was speaking of scientific organisations, but what he said is more true of political parties.
The person-centred or what has been labelled the single-leadership party is a strange phenomenon where a collectivity lives through an individual and an individual acts as and on behalf of the collective. The individual as leader becomes the organisation in a lived sense. S/he is the avatar. The leader’s biography is the only narrative the organisation has. In a sociological sense, charisma and bureaucracy are contradictory. The sociologist Max Weber argued that charisma is irrational, temporary, person-centred; a bureaucracy is rational, collective and impersonal. Typically, charisma does not often coexist with organisations as they routinise quickly. But in India, organisations come to life around the leader. S/he has the excess of energy that galvanises an entire party. The minute the leader enters, the organisation gets electrified into operation. In India, the leader is a ganglion that connects everyone individually.

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.

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