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Homegrown heroes

No matter how seductive the party manifestos or backroom deals are, it is local personalities — not national faces — who win assembly elections, writes Sagarika Ghose.

india Updated: May 10, 2011 21:01 IST
Sagarika Ghose

The last vote has been cast. The surveys are out. Electronic voting machines stand at the ready. In 48 hours, the voice of the Indian voter will thunder and we will know who has been chosen to rule in West Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Assam.

Verdict 2011 has been about local personalities. Every contest this time has been a presidential contest among local heroes. Parties, manifestos and national leaders have faded into irrelevance. Instead, towering local personalities are the determinants of electoral victories. The 2011 polls have shown how desperately national parties need to nurture local leaders. They have shown that the era of the national parachutist from Delhi has come to an end.

In Kerala roars the Malabar lion, 87-year-old VS Achuthanandan. The CPI(M) politburo in Delhi tried to deny him a ticket. But public uproar forced the lofty leadership at the Left headquarters to eat humble pie and today Achuthanandan fights from Malampuzha. Rahul Gandhi made the mistake of calling him aged, a remark seen in Kerala as both disrespectful and ill-informed. In a state where the number of elderly is expected to constitute 15% by 2021, age is to be respected — not scoffed at. Achuthanandan may be an octogenarian warhorse, but he’s also seen as the regional fighter against a dictatorial Delhi, an anti-incumbent against his own deeply divided party, the politically-incorrect, spartan, son-of-the-soil who speaks his mind about Islamic terror and enjoys an approval rating unusual for a sitting CM. The Left’s fortunes in Kerala revolve around the personality of Achuthanandan and whether or not voters believe he deserves a second term.

In West Bengal, storms Ma Durga in a crumpled sari, 56-year-old Mamata Banerjee. She’s not a goddess isolated in some brahmanical temple. She is a footpath kali who has waged a single-minded battle against the Left Front for over two decades. Sheer persistence and tenacity have built the Mamata Banerjee cult in the state. The Bengal Congress gave up fighting the Left two decades ago. Banerjee herself suffered crushing defeats. But now she is the Lech Walesa of India, the anti-communist hero who is set to defeat, through democratic politics, one of the oldest communist regimes in the world. No one knows much about the Trinamool, its programme, who exactly are its second-rung leaders or what kind of governance it will deliver. It’s Banerjee who has fought a presidential contest in Bengal. Her possible victory is a good moment for the Congress to reflect on why it let a natural born politician like her leave the party. Why did the high command not nurture her as a state president and why is it that any talented local leader is sooner or later forced to leave the Grand Old Party?

In Tamil Nadu, it’s a face off between the Dravida patriarch, 86-year-old Karunanidhi and the state’s very own Cleopatra, 63-year-old Jayalalithaa. When politics is personality-based, the role of family becomes crucial. The once-revolutionary DMK patriarch’s family is seen to be drowning in corruption. Goonda raj and family raj have destroyed Kalaignar’s Dravida idealism. Those who rule through presidential politics also die by presidential politics. When a beloved leader loves his own sons and daughters more than he loves the sons and daughters of Tamil Nadu, a personality cult sours rapidly. The 2011 verdict in the state revolves around the personality of Karunanidhi and whether voters want to punish him or give him another chance.

In Assam, the election once again centres around the personality of the Ahomiya-for-all-seasons, Tarun Gogoi — the only Assamese leader most Indians have heard about. The CNN-IBN post-poll survey suggests that Gogoi is set to return to power for a record third term. His success lies in his peace deal with Ulfa, the development-oriented government he is seen to have delivered in spite of serious corruption charges and the fact that there is no other leader to pose a challenge to the Gogoi persona.

State elections magnify personality-based politics and now general elections are no different. Even a party like the BJP, which apparently doesn’t believe in personality-based politics, was forced to make AB Vajpayee into a larger-than-life figure. The Congress won the 2009 election in urban India because of the promise and goodwill embodied by a Manmohan Singh.

In state elections, there is another critical dimension: the regional leader — be it a Nitish Kumar or a Narendra Modi or a Mamata Banerjee — must be deeply rooted in the political culture of that state. National leaders can parachute in and out in their helicopters, address stage-managed rallies and declare their fondness for the local cuisine. But at a time when regional identities are becoming sharper, elections will be won by state-level popular personalities who fight presidential campaigns. This might partly explain why the Congress is still struggling to revive itself in Uttar Pradesh or why, post-YSR, it is on the backfoot in Andhra Pradesh.

However seductive a party manifesto, however clever the backroom deals, it is the dominant local personalities — not national faces — who win assembly elections. A good example of political re-invention in this context is Naveen Patnaik. From being a Manhattan party animal, he is now a son-of-the-soil Oriya leader. If Patnaik can do it, why can’t India’s Generation Next politicians? They may not quite be ‘Amul Babies’ yet they appear disconnected from the perseverance required to become true blue local heroes.

Sagarika Ghose is deputy editor, CNN-IBN
The views expressed by the author are personal