The ravages of routine

Both the Congress and the BJP suffer from a vision deficit

As we think about the 2014 national elections, one thing is becoming manifestly clear. The two leading political parties of India, and their alliances, are in varying states of disarray. As of now, either could still win the next Lok Sabha elections, but that will not be because of organisational health, only due to the absence of other alternatives. The BJP, as the opposition party, should have been sitting pretty after the incumbent scandals of the last 18 months. But it seems incapable of stealing an easy thunder. How do we understand the malaise of both parties?

Before we proceed further, we should note that the malaise, however characterised, does not pose immediate, or fatal, dangers to India's democracy, as is sometimes claimed. We need to draw a distinction between routine and visionary forms of democratic politics. If anything, India has too much of routine democratic politics: bargains and negotiations between political parties, and of course, regular elections, victories and defeats. But India also has too little visionary democratic politics, in which parties vie with each other on transformative visions, mobilise support and run campaigns on that basis. It is the emaciation of visionary politics that has caused depression in the popular mood. Not in jeopardy, routine electoral democracy will go on.

The problems of the Congress party can be easily summarised. All over the world, political power has a corrosive, self-destructive quality. Exceptions notwithstanding, few incumbents last more than two terms; in some polities, in fact, there is an explicit two-term limit. The self-destructive quality of political power stems from the fact that the more a political organisation acquires power or the longer it lasts in power, the more it attracts those for whom political power is a means to patronage and to personal or sectional enhancement, not an instrument of social or national transformation. And the more politicians in power serve their own interests or those of a specific group, the more they lose larger political legitimacy. As power goes up, legitimacy tends to decline, very often if not always.

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