Spring is in the political air. The autumn of the patriarchs is fading into the winter of public oblivion. As the slogan of ‘UP ke Ladke’ gets thunderous endorsement in the Assembly elections, the budhas (old men) of Indian statecraft are voluntarily etiolating into irrelevance. The signs are evident in Amethi, the fiefdom of the Gandhi Parivar. For the first time in almost three decades, 70-year-old Sonia Gandhi chose to be conspicuous by her meaningful absence. It is also the first time she has stayed away from campaigning extensively for the Congress party, which she leads notionally, literally handing over the baton of belief to her son and daughter. Though news-starved journalists have been reading the tea leaves about Rahul replacing his mother as party president, the omens will translate into reality sooner than later.
The accompanying act in the national theatre of dynasties is the rise of the hottest son in Uttar Pradesh’s skies, overcast with caste and community pollutants. One of the country’s youngest chief ministers, Akhilesh Yadav’s bloodless coup set an example with painful palace politics. Unlike Sonia Gandhi, Samajwadi Party patriarch Mulayam Singh was unwilling to ride into the political sunset. He was clueless that the character of the cadre of the party he had nursed for four decades had significantly changed. The overwhelming majority of youth saw their future in Akhilesh and not his ailing father and tainted uncle Shivpal Yadav. Mulayam surrendered before his son after a symbolic show of resistance. After four decades, the UP electorate and SP candidates will be deprived of his words of wisdom during elections. The unchallenged rise of Rahul and Akhilesh is a clear indication that political power is finally moving from GenThen to GenNext.
In the South, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, germinator of Dravidian realpolitik, has found place in the album of political has-beens. During the latest inner-party Mahabharata in Tamil Nadu, the patriarch is absent in action. His son, DMK’s Working President M K Stalin, wields the sceptre in the legislature and the organisation. Though in the early 60s, his ascendency reflects the change in style and substance of the state’s political milieu. Akhilesh’s rise and Stalin’s grandstanding during the floor test to prove Palaniswami’s majority showed the consanguine shift in identity power. Most of India’s clan-driven regional parties are in DNA transition.
In Karnataka, former prime minister H D Deve Gowda has almost taken political sanyas, leaving elder son HD Kumaraswamy to call the shots. In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, Chandrababu Naidu and K Chandrashekar Rao are respectively delegating political authority to their sons, who will eventually succeed their fathers. Jagan Reddy, son of the late united-Andhra CM YSR Reddy, has emerged as the regional alternative to TDP and has replaced the Congress in the state. In Maharashtra, Maratha maven Sharad Pawar has left organisational matters to daughter Supriya Sule, Lok Sabha MP from Baramati, her paternal constituency. She has softly walked into his shoes though she hasn’t been named his successor yet. In Jammu and Kashmir, former chief minister and National Conference chief Farooq Abdullah has almost vanished from the political landscape, leaving it to son Omar to shape and shake their 60-year-old party created by Sheikh Abdullah.
Moreover, J&K is the battleground of two political scions—Omar versus Mehbooba Mufti, daughter of former CM Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, who anointed her with the legacy and philosophy of the Peoples Democratic Party, the regional outfit he founded. Even Indian National Lok Dal and the Rashtriya Lok Dal, led by O P Chauthala and Ajit Singh respectively, are experiencing a seismic change of guard, with young and educated sons gathering the reins. Though Lalu Yadav remains politically panoramic in Bihar, he chose younger son Tejaswi, all of 29 years, as his political heir and got him appointed the Deputy Chief Minister. In Punjab, the recently-concluded Assembly election is perhaps the political swan song of Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, who has led the Akali Dal from the front for almost six decades.
It is abundantly clear that the possibility of regional parties losing their sheen or disintegrating after the retirement of their founders is quite dim. The Legatees are not only more educated and discerning than their parents, but also have the strategic mettle to adopt and apply new tactics to connect with voters. Their ideological foundations are different than that of their sires who cut their teeth in the tailspin of Independence and the Emergency. Although most of the young successors wish to retain their outfits’ core alchemy of caste and regional aspirations, they strive to make development their default philosophy for winning elections. For example, Akhilesh has rarely invoked the caste card while seeking votes this time. His mass mantra is his performance on the development front. Even Sukhbir Singh Badal refrained from using religion and promotes himself as the Moderniser of Punjab who removed its infrastructure inadequacies.
These sons and daughters with degree and pedigree have a common factor. Barring Sukhbir, they are all ideologically antagonistic to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and have hardly dealt with its senior leadership. Rahul senses an opportunity in the hierarchical transformation in the regional parties. He stuck a temporarily disadvantageous alliance with Akhilesh in UP because he understands the state’s importance in 2019 when India goes to polls again. In age and cultural temperament, he cannot connect with Mayawati or Mulayam.
His calculation is that no party will score a majority in 2019. By forging a political marriage with the ascendant ladkas and ladkis (young boys and girls) in regional outfits, Rahul hopes to challenge the might of Narendra Modi. The Congress youngster is drafting a replacement plan for party elders by appointing young regional captains in the states, as in Rajasthan. The new generation of regional power players will find it socially, culturally and in years more ideologically aligned with Rahul than the BJP leadership. Moreover, he doesn’t pose a threat to any of them since he needs them more than they need him. If the UP experiment succeeds, it will define the possible contours of UPA-III which will comprise younger leaders without permanent ideologies, but with permanent interests.