Shouldn’t political parties have a succession plan?
On Saturday, Edappadi K. Palaniswami formally overcame the spirited challenge from his former colleague O. Panneerselvam by winning the trust vote in the Tamil Nadu legislature and legitimately anointing himself the next chief minister. He also brought the curtain down on the first season of what was turning out to be a hugely entertaining political sitcom, replete with the riveting intrigue associated with a palace coup.
For all you know, this is only the beginning. Considering that the person really wielding power is V.K. Sasikala, the former aide of the late All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) supremo J. Jayalalithaa who is now in jail serving out a sentence for past misdemeanours involving embezzlement of public money, and the fact that another mutiny cannot be ruled out, essentially Palaniswami’s tenure will be anything but stable—and this government has another four years left in power.
The question this episode begets is, was it avoidable? Could Jayalalithaa or the AIADMK have put in place a transparent succession plan, which could have pre-empted much of this bloodletting that we witnessed over the last few weeks? In theory, yes, it is possible, but in practice, the dice is loaded against it; unless, of course, political parties are willing to reinvent themselves.
Because as we saw in the case of the Samajwadi Party (SP), the successor, Akhilesh Yadav, was clearly not willing to wait for his patron and father Mulayam Singh Yadav to formally hand over the baton—as was signalled with the appointment of junior Yadav as the chief minister after the Samajwadi Party swept to power in 2012.
The ensuing drama was very akin to what played out in Tamil Nadu in the last few weeks. Intrigue, conspiracies, public posturing, threats or whatever; everything was out in the open and playing out in real time in the media. Eventually, junior Yadav showed that he was hungrier than his father for power. But we will only know on 11 March when the votes for the ongoing state polls are counted whether this was indeed such a smart ploy.
Roll back to 2013-14 and a similar drama played out in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) when Narendra Modi made an audacious bid for leadership of the party ahead of the 16th general election. Eventually, Modi prevailed, but not without the drama we witnessed in UP and Tamil Nadu, and the primary loser, L.K. Advani, was consigned to political oblivion.
To be sure, the episode involving the BJP cannot really be compared to what transpired in the AIADMK and the Samajwadi Party—both of which are family enterprises with little democratic freedom for outsiders. Yet, it does highlight, like the other two examples, the need for succession planning.
To a large extent, the lack of it is because of the complex play of big money in politics, encouraging the creation of a coterie around the leader or an extended family network around the incumbent. The opening up of the economy, especially to the domestic and foreign private sector, has only accelerated this phenomenon of rent-seeking behaviour as factors of production like land have discovered unprecedented premiums.
Since the involvement of big money in politics is largely a below-the-table exercise, as on paper every political party swears by good behaviour, the power networks around the leadership are very difficult to gauge for a challenger—unless he/she has their own funding.
So, if succession planning is to begin in political parties, then a precondition is fixing electoral funding. The step proposed in this year’s union budget are mere baby steps, but in principle, in the right direction. A lot more needs to be done before politics can be sanitized of the ills of big money.
Neutering this third rail of Indian politics will make it easier to adopt democratic principles like capping the number of terms for a leader or ensuring transparent intra-party polls (even the Congress, the country’s oldest political party, is remiss in this). And of course, an additional spin-off is that one of the key sources of corruption and black money would have been nixed.
Look at it any which way, it is time political parties looked at succession planning. As the cliché goes, better late than never.
Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.
His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus
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