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Leader-centric elections


Well-known member
As with Bofors in 1989, the emphasis on big-ticket corruption — in this case, the Rafale deal — is being made to undermine the stature of the leader leading a party’s campaign. Indian election campaigns, particularly those at the national level, are increasingly becoming leader-centric. Whether it is the BJP or the Congress, the party’s posters in most constituencies highlight the image of Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi. This is true of regional parties as well. While India’s election campaigns have always been centred on leaders and their personalities, a series of recent developments have made leaders even more pivotal.

The first is that, in India, ever since the centralisation of power in the office of the prime minister by Indira Gandhi, executive power has come to vest with the prime minister. Due to constraints posed by having to lead coalition governments, no prime minister since Rajiv Gandhi has been able to exercise his full authority. Narendra Modi, by all accounts, has centralised a lot of power in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), giving him a lot of power and authority.

Second, there is increased centralisation within parties. A few decades ago, the Congress party had different wings representing different ideologies with the ability to openly voice disagreements with party decisions. Today, that is almost unheard of. The BJP, too, has become more centralised in recent years. With his protégé and close colleague Amit Shah at the helm, Prime Minister Modi now has outsized influence over the party as well. In both the major national parties and most regional parties, dissenting voices are drowned out, further strengthening the voice and profile of the leader.

Third, is a very fragmented opposition. This is particularly relevant in the present scenario. The lack of a similarly towering leader on the other side who can project authority and unite the opposition parties has given Prime Minister Modi and his office even more authority.

Personality matters

These developments are not unique to India. National elections in parliamentary democracies like Britain (Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher), Japan (Shinzo Abe), and Hungary (Viktor Orban) have increasingly become about the personality of the leader. Popular leaders can have a big impact on the vote, as confirmed by pollsters across the board who pointed to a significant ‘Modi effect’ in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and subsequent state elections.

As a result, the communication strategies of all parties are centred on highlighting the strengths of their leaders and the weaknesses of the opposition leaders. Even Narendra Modi’s speeches are filled with jibes at opposition leaders, from Rahul Gandhi to Mamata Banerjee to Chandrababu Naidu, among others. In fact, the BJP is trying hard to make this election a presidential-style contest between Narendra Modi and anybody else. At a recent event, party president Amit Shah asked the opposition, “Narendra Modi is our leader, who is yours?” This makes sense for the BJP, because Prime Minister Modi still remains the most popular leader in the country, even if polls suggest that his popularity has waned over time.

For the Congress, the only option available is to do whatever it can to try and chip away at Modi’s popularity. And it seems its leaders sense an opportunity to do that by relentlessly attacking him on the Rafale issue. By constantly repeating “chowkidar chor hai,” the Congress is hoping it can take the sheen off Modi and punch a hole into his image as a strong, incorruptible leader, thereby lessening the impact of his personality on the outcome of the election.

As elections become as much about the leaders themselves as about the parties and issues they represent, it unfortunately makes logical sense for political parties to run a large part of their campaign on “Kaun Banega Pradhan Mantri?” rather than on real issues.

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