New Delhi: Last week, in the aftermath of a less-than impressive performance in the West Bengal polls, almost all of the Congress’s 44 state legislators signed a declaration of unqualified allegiance to the party. That means, naturally, to the Gandhis—Sonia and Rahul. We are firmly in Dear Leader territory here—and the Congress’ rivals haven’t been slow to seize upon this latest instance of dynastic devotion. But the criticism from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) is a bit rich; sycophancy is a broad spectrum condition in Indian politics and they are not immune to it.

The BJP’s eagerness to extol Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s virtues—variously “God’s divine gift to India", a saviour foretold by French prophet Nostradamus and Gandhi’s peer—shows a depressing reversal to the mean. The clumsy adulation doesn’t come from nameless BJP functionaries; these are some of its tallest leaders like M. Venkaiah Naidu and Shivraj Singh Chouhan. The TMC and Bahujan Samaj Party, meanwhile, are one-woman organizations where a party member’s shelf life depends upon the ability to keep the lady in good humour. The reign of the Samajwadi Party patriarch and his clan is tinged with feudalism and south of the Vindhyas, the Dravidian parties have elevated sycophancy to an art form—a strange brew of cinema mystique, deification and authoritarianism.

Much of this can be traced back to Indira Gandhi’s original sin—her repudiation of intra-party democracy in the 1969-71 period, taking on the old guard by transforming herself into both the symbol and author of power. The Congress president at the time, S. Nijalingappa, had presciently warned of “the tragedy that overtakes democracy when a leader who has risen to power on the crest of a popular wave or with the support of a democratic organisation becomes a victim of political narcissism and is egged on by a coterie of unscrupulous sycophants who use corruption and terror to silence opposition and attempt to make public opinion an echo of authority".

So it came to pass—for the Congress, and subsequently, for other parties as well. Corruption, misgovernance and the hardening of power structures have been the obvious outcomes. With them came intellectual and policy stagnation. There is a reason it took decades to begin undoing the damage caused by Indira’s hard left turn. As Gabriel Kolko—ironically, a historian of the New Left himself—has put it, political leaders are conformists on most crucial issues. Those who criticize received wisdom within their party’s ideological structures tend to be weeded out early. When rising through the ranks depends on the approval of a non-democratic leader and his coterie, the effect is magnified. Orthodoxy is the order of the day even when reason says otherwise.

Disheartening as this progression of Indian politics has been, it isn’t particularly surprising. Entrenched power structures and systems have been viewed with increasing hostility in the years since the global financial crisis—often to a cartoonish extent. But there is a kernel of truth to the accusations: all democracies develop oligarchic tendencies over time—the closer to the top of the power structure, the more so. Political sycophancy and all it engenders are inevitable by-products of this evolution.

There is nothing new about this; social scientists Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca and Robert Michels’s classical elite theory dates back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their ascribing inherently superior attributes to the ruling elite is problematic, of course; it assumes perfect social and economic mobility that allows the qualified to rise to the top. That is far from the reality. The inequality of opportunity and means that exist in every society means that the opportunities for a change of elite are rare. And when that churn does happen on occasion through political upheaval—the Mandal movement, for instance—the new elite swiftly take on the characteristics of the old.

The real question is that of degree; the best democracies minimize oligarchic tendencies. Why does India fare so poorly in this regard? Social and economic inequality are obvious reasons, steering the political process in a particular direction.

In his excellent look at Pakistan’s political and social power structures in Pakistan: A Hard Country, Anatol Lieven points out that a feudal network of kinship and patronage undergirds the democratic process because of these inequalities—a feature of all South Asian elites to varying degrees, including India where it takes the form of the politics of vote-bank politics.

It’s often decried as illogical here, the voters cast as simpletons who vote against their own interests out of ignorance and blind loyalty. That is a reductive view. It fails to take into account that when voters see themselves in a system where having a patron belonging to the same caste network is the only means to access state resources and power, voting along caste lines can seem eminently sensible.

Other countries that suffer from similar socio-economic cleavages display the same patterns. National and regional politics in African countries such as Kenya and Nigeria, for instance, are dominated by tribal loyalties that are both a conduit to power and a means of protection against rival tribal groups. Those loyalties and the patron-client relationships they create result in similar levels of power concentration, sycophancy and corruption.

What does that mean for Indian politics? Will the Congress continue to hover between the tragedy of its decline and the farce of its devotion to dynasty? Will the BJP resist forming a Modi cult of personality? Are the Dravidian parties likely to change their style of functioning? Yes, no and no are my best guesses. Sycophancy is a symptom; it isn’t going anywhere until substantial socio-economic shifts take place, institutions are strengthened and, consequently, the way power functions within parties changes. That is the work of decades. For now, expect to see more paeans to the glory of leaders across the spectrum.

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