Friday, April 15, 2011

Amul Babies and Identity Politics

Kerala Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan has committed yet another faux pas by calling the Congress scion Rahul Gandhi an 'Amul Baby,' a reference to the little girl in the Amul ads. Although he was quickly admonished by virtually the entire political spectrum, his words highlight just how personal Indian politics is getting.

Ideally, parliamentary democracy is about the system, the ideology, the party, not the person. But we've been seeing, all over the world, just how much the system is changing. So, in the UK, Gordon Brown was personally indicted by the Opposition for his own lack of leadership and supposed fiscal decisions. In Australia, Kevin Rudd's (poor) leadership was used as an excuse for the entire Government to be pulled down by his own party.

In India, identity politics has been established over years. In the North East for example, it is strong. The BJP could form a Government in far away, mainly tribal Arunachal Pradesh because its candidate for Chief Minister held such sway. YS Rajashekhar Reddy brought fortunes to the Congress virtually on the back of his own achievements. LK Advani and Manmohan Singh had a fierce contest through their parties as to who was a better leader. In all these cases, the individual, his talent, his ideals, his style of functioning have made all the difference to voters who couldn't even vote for him directly.

Is identity politics a good thing? Well, that depends. Certainly, we need capable individuals: unless the parts are good, how can the whole be good? But then again, identity politics does not focus on the parts, but rather, just a small part. YSR Reddy was a great leader, but his cabinet was supremely corrupt. Yet, the party was voted back to power. LK Advani put up a poor campaign and his entire party suffered.

Whether good or bad, identity politics is here to stay. You could say that the Congress is the progenitor, with its obsession with the Gandhi dynasty. But there are other parties that have gone well beyond the Congress in this field - some parties being run by a single individual and no organization.

What will be the biggest display of identity politics. 2012: Uttar Pradesh. We'll be watching.

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