View: The big churn in Indian politics offers mobility, opportunity and representation

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The political landscape is witnessing a generation shift, creating in its wake a whole new line-up of political actors. While many of these changes across parties appear politically expedient, they are actually driven by political necessity to offer mobility, opportunity and representation, without which it’s difficult to get a shot at electoral victory.

Two chief ministerial resignations —Congress’ Amarinder Singh in Punjab and BJP’s B S Yediyurappa in Karnataka — have brought down the average age of CMs below 60. As of today, there are just seven CMs who are 70 or above. Of these, none are from the BJP, one from the Congress, one from the CPI(M) and five from regional parties.

Conversely, nearly half of the states have first-time CMs, most of them under 60. In fact, a quarter of CMs are under 50. After a long time, we have a situation when the average age of both the Union Cabinet and all the CMs — essentially what would qualify as India’s collective leadership — is below 60. That’s quite an improvement in a country where generation changes in politics have been gradual and largely dynasty-driven.

This churn was visible from the early 2010s. The rise of a bunch of young Congress leaders under Rahul Gandhi, Akhilesh Yadav’s stunning 2012 victory in Uttar Pradesh, and the emergence of Arvind Kejriwal as a political force were pointers to this shift. But both Gandhi and Yadav failed to build on the head start, and continue a politics by entitlement. Kejriwal, on the other hand, managed to survive and grow in relevance. But so far, only within a limited political geography. The real gainer then was Narendra Modi, who crafted a successful campaign against entitlement and corruption, promising a transformative new beginning with fresh opportunities.

In the political space, this translated into a ‘no baggage’ approach — no pariahs when it came to poaching talent from other parties. Within the BJP, old camp followers lost out as fresh faces made their way up. That today an old Congress hand like Himanta Biswa Sarma could become Assam CM tells you the mental leap the BJP as a party has made.

Where’s the Party Tonight?

Entities, both within the BJP and outside in the parivar, have had to make significant adjustments to cope with these fundamental shifts as the party took pole position in the political arena. But over the last 3-4 years, the opposition has gathered strength through well-rooted regionalism, articulated either by parties or regional leaders within national parties.

As a result, a decade later, we have a medley of new political actors, including dynasts, from different parties making up the political album. However, this is now a dynamic, not a frozen, photoframe, because that’s how competitive politics has become. With voting percentages crossing 60-65% on a regular basis, the stakes in Indian democracy are only increasing.

The victory combination is now a complex mix of caste equations, governance markers and narrative building the leader. Getting this mix right is always a challenge. But what’s becoming clearer is that new leaders will increasingly be from among OBCs, SCs and STs as democracy deepens its roots.

This is not to say dynasty politics is on the wane. Jagan Mohan Reddy, M K Stalin, Uddhav Thackeray and Hemant Soren are CMs with political pedigree. But the big difference is each of them has had to reclaim lost political power by proving their worth. Stalin has had to struggle for nearly two decades, wait out the Jayalalithaa era, to gain political acceptance.

Reddy broke with the Congress, had to find his feet, build a new party and rise on his own political steam. Thackeray broke up with the BJP, made alliances his father would probably have disapproved to gain relevance. Soren combed every inch of Jharkhand to regain the tribal vote to challenge the BJP.

On the other hand, for those posted as CM by their party after an electoral victory like Adityanath, the next election becomes vital. In some cases, as in Gujarat and Uttarakhand, the BJP changed its CMs to buck anti-incumbency. So, while there’s greater mobility and opportunity for political aspirants, the fall can be equally brisk if one fails to deliver. With ready options on offer, there is less premium now on longterm investment of political talent.

One of the discomfiting fallouts of this generation shift, however, is that it’s leaving behind scars of a ruptured relationship with the outgoing generation. In the BJP, the stalwarts were given a soft exit through the margdarshak mandal — a committee of mentors — while in the Congress it has led to a showdown as some of them have sought to lead the charge against Rahul Gandhi.

Dial-a-History No More
Age and time can’t be reversed. But exiting generations have generally stuck around as a source of guidance, largely for their sheer institutional memory. They work out missing links in Parliament, remind leaders of administrative precedents and help keep the political compass in place. But the severing has left the outgoing generation bitter, and the present lot rather impoverished of working knowledge. As a result, many leaders are increasingly leaning on bureaucrats to fill the knowledge gap and make complex governance structures function.

Either way, the political space has now both opened up and levelled out because of this churn. A quick look today at the gallery of faces that dominate Union and state cabinets tell you that change is writ large. The challenge now is for this generation to get its policy paradigm right and not rely on just the identity politics of the past.

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