If we went by the tone and tenor of some TV channels, then in the passing away of 95-year-old Jyoti Basu, India possibly lost its greatest leader. Certainly Basu was one of the iconic figures of our times and the TV news hunger for hysteria explains some commentators going overboard. And frankly, in the beginning of 2010, on the eve of Republic Day we are left with a crop of mediocre leaders whose stature has only diminished over the years.
Let’s first cast our eye to the Right and suddenly we see that in 2009-2010 all the big figures began fading away. Atal Bihari Vajpayee has been in confinement for a while now and in all fairness to the former prime minister he quit active politics once the NDA lost the mandate in 2004. The other towering figures of the Right did not go quite as gracefully. There was Bhairon Singh Shekhavat, former vice president who continued to contact journalists and push his agendas in Rajasthan politics till a year ago.
Jaswant Singh, the former external affairs minister, went with a bang when the BJP expelled him after he wrote a book on Jinnah last year. He’s still a member of the Lok Sabha from Darjeeling and is working on other books but clearly the BJP is now in his past. And finally L.K. Advani too has quit party and constitutional posts though a new one as chairman of the parliamentary party has been created for him. Currently the BJP is pondering over how to get him a room in parliament and one idea is that he should use the room that is still allotted to Vajpayee as chairman of the NDA. The other key figure in the NDA was its convenor, socialist George Fernandes, who has now aged so terribly that lucid spells are becoming brief. Sadly, the legacy of George is being fought between his wife and long time companion while the man himself comprehends little.
An entire generation is fading away and not so gloriously. Meanwhile the younger replacements just don’t have the personality, the stature, or the engagement with mass movements and politics that placed the old leadership in their once commanding positions. Take the example of Narendra Modi, once hailed as the great hope of the Hindu right. Modi may continue to be on top of the game in Gujarat but his excursions into the rest of India proved counter-productive in the 2009 general elections and he is increasingly ruled out as a future leader of the BJP. His wings clearly clipped, he has sensibly retreated to home base.
The great figures of the Mandal movement too are now diminished. Mulayam Singh Yadav is no longer known for his people’s policies but currently for his stormy divorce from Amar Singh, the man who showed the doughty Yadav the world of glamour, big corporate money and according to rumour mills, lots of sleaze. Possibly Laloo was the greater Yadav of his times, the man who certainly loosened upper caste domination of Bihar politics and changed the tone, tenor and vernacular of mass contact. A natural talent, Laloo’s inability to apply to the next phase that must come in the form of development, has also seen his political clout diminish. Now defeated in the state and out of the union cabinet, at least the man is said to be on the job in Bihar, preparing for a fight against Nitish Kumar when the Bihar assembly polls take place later this year. But the Laloo magic has certainly waned and the stature has diminished.
So is there a last man standing from the Mandal era? Possibly, that man is a woman, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati who continues to cut a lonely figure but has kept her grip on the state. She is still a winner and a survivor. Besides Mayawati and Modi, are there any remarkable chief ministers, iconic figures from the states? Not a single name comes to mind. From the Congress stable there was YSR, but what a mess the state he once ruled is in now. Indeed there does not seem to be a single impressive figure that the Congress has in the states.
And at the centre we have a dynasty. The current wisdom in Delhi is that Rahul Gandhi is finally coming of age and that he will fix all that is wrong but surely there’s great sycophancy also at play. The fact is that the Congress may have capable ministers and leaders but in the end they are all irrelevant and only members of the dynasty count. And certainly Rahul is no Jawaharlal and Priyanka no Indira. And none of the current Gandhis have any experience of genuine mass politics. So who do we place on a pedestal?
Sadly, perhaps we should acknowledge that this is the age of mediocrity where politicians are backed by their fathers or mothers or corporate and business interests. We simply will not get leaders like we had in the past. We will just get well brought up offspring of political dynasties, politely mouthing words and stepping into the parent’s shoes. Perhaps that is why, for all his flaws and failures, Jyoti Basu so impresses us in death.