Regular leadership transitions are necessary, but even necessary transitions weaken the entity that is being led, as contenders to the gaddi duke it out and governance takes a pause amidst the uncertainty. The transition can be made shorter and smoother by having a well defined and legitimate process.
There are many different ways to decide on the succession – it could be dynastic or democratic. You could have an appointive process where the incumbent or a board makes the choice. You could do a search for the next reincarnation of the bodhisatva, or you could have an elephant with a garland choose the next king. To succeed, the process requires legitimacy. It is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for success.
What is legitimacy? In the words of Thomas Schelling, it is a focal point. In those of Lord Varys, “power resides where men believes it resides”.
If I win a legitimate democratic election, I know that my opponent will not mount a rebellion against me, so I will have no need to conduct a purge and eliminate my opponents. My opponent knows that I know that he will not mount a rebellion, and therefore, I will not attempt a purge, and therefore, he feels safe enough to not mount a rebellion. I also know that once the election is over, norm assures me that barring exceptional circumstances, I am safe from a challenge till the next election, and therefore I do not need to be in a combative posture continually. I can reach out and shake hands with my opponent and strike up a working relationship with him.
The dynastic method of succession also successfully serves as a focal point. It narrows the field of contenders to the throne to a small number within the family. (If you adopt a rule like primogeniture, the field is down to one) While it is disappointing for someone outside the dynasty that he will never gain the top position, the disappointment is somewhat mitigated by the knowledge that others around him are in the same position and he doesn’t have to engage in constant power struggle. Because the dynastic position is for life, the lucky sperm can focus less on power struggles and more on governing, at least till his offspring grow up.
I don’t want to overstate the case for the dynastic system. Historically, most dynasties did not survive for long. They were overthrown by others who established their own dynasties. And the dictum of legitimacy being a necessary but not sufficient condition of success applies particularly with the dynastic system.
Many people are calling for either the democratization of the Indian National Congress or a Modi-style rebellion against Rahul Gandhi, but the problem remains the same with either scenario. The democratic process does not have legitimacy in the current Congress. The dynastic system does. Legitimacy takes a long time to be established. The power struggle that is required to unseat the Gandhis will finish the INC much before legitimacy can be established.
The BJP does not have a legitimate process for succession either. Modi took over a party whose aging leadership was overdue for retirement. There was no formal leadership challenge, no election or any kind of competitive process. Everyone kind of just decided that he was the right man for the job and the entire party reoriented around him. Modi’s task was made easier by his overwhelming popularity within the party. It also helped that the party has organizational and ideological coherence that ensured that it would stay intact even if there were a power struggle.
The Congress does not have any of these advantages. Its organizational coherence is uneven at best, and it has no ideology to motivate it. A BJP leader or worker does not have a future outside the party, as Keshubhai Patel, Uma Bharti and Kalyan Singh learnt. For a congressman, the INC is one of the many career options. There is no reason the party will stay together during the period of inevitable uncertainty when a leadership struggle happens.
To make this concrete, we can try to imagine a Congress version of Narendra Modi – a challenger to the leadership. Obviously, such a person is unlikely to exist in the current national “leadership” of the INC, because popular leaders have been systematically eliminated from there. So imagine an ambitious and talented leader at the state level, either within the Congress or outside it. He wants to carve out a career path for himself that will take him to the Premiership of India by adopting any strategy that will work. In any plausible scenario, is staying in (or joining) the Congress, deposing and taking over its leadership the dominant strategy? I claim that the answer is no. I would argue that in almost every case, breaking up the state level party to form a new entity and trying the coalition route, or trying to form a new national party that attracts the disaffected leaders of the Congress and other parties dominates in terms of cost-benefit analysis over the strategy of working within the party.
The one exception I can think of is a strategy that does not directly challenge the legitimacy of the dynastic system. This is the method by which the Peshwai was established, the method by which ambitious and competent ministers have risen to be the power behind the throne when the throne is occupied by weak kings, or indeed the method that resulted in constitutional monarchies in many countries of Europe. But for such a strategy to work, this ambitious minister will have to insinuate himself into the good books of a man who has absolutely no discrimination and whose natural instincts are to trust charlatans like Praveen Chakravarty, fight off political machinations and intrigue by a jealous inner circle whose attacks on him will only increase the more successful he gets and somehow also concentrate on his core job of strengthening the party and helping it win elections. Perhaps in some particular combination of circumstances the stars might align and the right person adopting such a strategy may be the right choice, but no, this is not something one can reasonably hope for as a way to form an alternative to the BJP.