The coverage of the July 20 no-confidence motion against the Union government reflected the deep personalisation of our politics. The fact that it was the Telugu Desam Party – a former partner of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance – that launched the motion over the denial of “special status” to Andhra Pradesh was virtually forgotten. Little attention was paid to the content of the speeches in the debate. All that mattered, apparently, was Congress president Rahul Gandhi hugging the prime minister, and the wink that followed.

This framing of national politics as Modi vs Rahul is, of course, exactly the way Narendra Modi likes it. Except among voters who would never consider the Bharatiya Janata Party anyway, he invariably benefits from the comparison. As he presents it, he is a self-made “kaamdaar”, opposing himself to the “naamdaar” Congress president, who has inherited rather than earned his position. In the campaign for the 2014 elections, BJP leaders generally referred to Rahul Gandhi as the “shehzada” or prince.

But Modi’s critique of dynasticism has always been general as well as personal. The reason we need a Congress-mukt Bharat, he has claimed, is that the Congress has made the public good subservient to the good of one family. After five years of Modi’s leadership, the BJP has come impressively close to achieving Congress-mukt Bharat. But in the process the BJP itself has been transformed into the party of Modi.

Dynastic and Caesarist parties

The vast majority of the politically significant parties in India have long been of two kinds. One, following the example of the Congress (Indira), is dynastic. Most dynastic parties do not start out that way – they have a clear social base and often a defined ideology. Think of the Shiromani Akali Dal or the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. But dynasticism, at least in Indian politics, is an incurable disease. Once the principle of dynastic succession is established, the top job is closed off to all except family members. Over time, inevitably, the party loses its ideological character, and its hold on its core social base begins to fray. The electoral appeal of the ruling family gradually dissipates with each generation, but the party remains dynastic.

A second kind of party is Caesarist – totally dominated by a single charismatic leader. Think of the Janata Dal (United), or the Aam Aadmi Party, or the Bahujan Samaj Party, or the Trinamool Congress. As with dynastic parties, Caesarist parties often do not begin as such – as the likes of former Aam Aadmi Party leader Yogendra Yadav can attest. Both in terms of their process of decision-making as well as in the mind of the voter, Caesarist parties are identified totally with the leader. They are internally undemocratic, and construct cults of personality. At the state level, Caesarist parties are especially prone to authoritarian behaviour, such as the suppression of press freedom.

Dynastic and Caesarist parties have a great deal in common. In both types, there is little intraparty ideological debate, and no competition for the top job, hence, also, no accountability for defeat. Taken together, they speak to the broad Indian failure to develop healthy party structures. A cynic might say that the only difference between the two is that Caesarists tend to be childless and hence cannot establish dynasties. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and, thus far, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal are exceptional for having kept their children out of politics.

But there are other differences. The culture of a dynastic party is even more servile than a Caesarist one, the senior leaders resembling medieval courtiers rather than politicians in a democracy. Most importantly, Caesarist parties leave open the question of succession, and thus give ambitious politicians something to aspire to.

At the BJP parliamentary party meeting on December 20, 2017. (Photo credit: Amit Shah/ Twitter).
At the BJP parliamentary party meeting on December 20, 2017. (Photo credit: Amit Shah/ Twitter).

Party with a difference?

By the 2009 general election, only two major parties remained that were neither dynastic nor Caesarist: the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Both were marked by deeply held ideological commitments, and a relatively consensual form of leadership in which individual chief ministers were autonomous. Neither was identified with a single dominant leader.

Narendra Modi was, ironically, the greatest beneficiary of this system. First, in 2002, when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was unable to remove him as Gujarat chief minister (contrast the manner in which Modi himself changed Gujarat chief ministers in 2016); second, because the absence of a dominant leader allowed him to build his own national profile; third, because the party’s drift in the years immediately before and following 2009 prompted the belief that only Caesarism under Modi would lead the BJP back to power.

The BJP still officially describes itself as “the party with a difference”. But under Modi, it has become just another Caesarist party. The only difference is of scale. Decision-making is centralised: sometimes, as with demonetisation, almost to the point of self-parody. Operating in an India with universal access to modern communication, he has created a cult of personality that may have surpassed Indira Gandhi’s. The party and government are identified totally with one person. In Vajpayee’s time we spoke of “the NDA government”. Now it is not the “NDA government” or the “BJP government”, but the “Modi government”. In its attitude to the press and to critical non-profit organisations, the new BJP resembles a Caesarist state government rather than the previous NDA regime.

It is Caesarist to the extent and nature of Modi’s hold over his own party. Potential rivals, such as Sushma Swaraj, are sidelined or humiliated. The ministers regularly called on to perform acts of competitive sycophancy are all members of the Rajya Sabha who pose no political threat.

What after Modi?

The test of Modi’s hold over his party will be what happens if he fails to win a majority in 2019. There are some in the BJP, and among its allies, who are hoping for a National Democratic Alliance government headed by someone other than Modi (Swaraj, say, or Nitin Gadkari). Such an arrangement might suit the allies. Modi can, in a free and fair election, be removed as prime minister. But can he really lose the leadership of his party? More plausible, surely, is that he retains his hold, and it is up to him to decide whether to try and form a government or sit out in the hope that an unsustainable Opposition coalition will allow him to come back with a renewed majority.

The BJP has embraced Caesarism in large part because Modi delivers electoral success. When politics is personalised, and your leader is so much more popular than his nearest rival, Caesarism is a reasonable strategy. In the short term, the BJP’s identification with Modi may be its greatest strength. His popularity insulates the party from the unpopularity of its policies. Unable to run on its record, the party runs on a name: the most resonant name in our politics.

But in the longer term, the BJP’s transformation comes with serious risks. One of the party’s key advantages over the Congress has been its ability to recruit members on the appeal of ideology – rather than merely the promise of power and its trappings. Now the cult of personality has replaced ideology, as evidenced by Modi’s immunity to criticism even when his policies run counter to his party’s stated core commitments.

And, eventually, Caesarist parties have to reckon with life beyond the charismatic leader. The Congress became the party of Indira, and it is yet to recover from her death (she could not be replaced dynastically, and the party knows no other way). The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam exemplifies the chaos that can follow the death of a Caesarist.

There is a view that the choice of Yogi Adityanath as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh was made with exactly this problem in mind. Even if that were true, Adityanath’s difficulties since taking office only underline the scale of the problem that will eventually face the BJP. It is much more likely that the BJP will be unable to find a successor capable of replicating Modi’s approach – and, at that point, the party will have to remake itself again.