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Patronage versus populist democracy

Patricia Mukhim

In his book, Populism and Patronage: Why populists win elections in India, Asia and Beyond, Paul D Kenny says after Mahatmas Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, the turbulent politics of the Indian Independence Movement was quickly curtailed. This happened because the Congress government led by Jawaharlal Nehru engineered a state of democratic stability through distribution of patronage to its political supporters. But this model of governance collapsed within a few years of Nehru’s death. The one-party dominant system descended into a crisis. A weakened central leadership resulted in infighting in the Congress leading to electoral losses in several states in 1967.  

In 1969 the Congress Party split up and Indira Gandhi took the reins of the majority faction. Indira had realised that the regional satraps who broke away from the Congress had actually weakened the hold of the Party over the states. She decided to establish direct contact with the people. To establish her authority Indira Gandhi had to push through some populist policies, the major one being the nationalisation of banks and bringing to an end the privy purses of the royalty of India – the Rajahs and Maharajahs who once ruled their respective territories before the British united India.

Like Narendra Modi, Indira Gandhi too used a new media strategy to connect directly to the people. But she also found out that patronage democracy through party networks had its merits and trying to win elections without the help of the regional satraps was a rather difficult task. Indira Gandhi then resorted to a sort of tyrannical rule by suspending democracy in July 1975. This led to a series of abuses such as the clampdown on press freedom, sending political rivals and dissenters to prison and Sanjay Gandhi unleashed his forced sterilisation programme in the name of family planning. This black spot in India’s post independence history ended after twenty one months when elections were declared in 1977 where Indira was badly defeated. She returned to power in 1980 and ruled until her death in 1984. By the time Rajiv Gandhi took over in 1984 the party network was in a shambles. After that it was populism that won votes not patronage through party networks.  

To explain populism better, Kenny says this is a political movement that links political leaders to supporters without any party network. Populism is where personalistic leaders seek to establish unmediated links with mass constituencies who are otherwise free of existing party affiliations and institutional ties, in their quest to gain and retain power. This is exactly the politics played out in Meghalaya. Here candidates usually mobilize a diverse support base of unattached voters and make rhetorical appeals to a virtuous “people” in opposition to a corrupt establishment. This is what Rahul Gandhi did when he came to Shillong and got the state Congress machinery to round up different stakeholders so that he could pitch his campaign around the venality of the BJP. In doing so the Gandhi scion diverted peoples’ attention from the anti-incumbency factor that the Congress government is suffering due to its seven year rule. It was a clever strategy and it seemed to work because several groups of people representing a cross section of society from church leaders to traditional heads, all listened intently while Rahul Gandhi held forth that the Congress Party will  deliver the people of this state from the ugly clutches of the BJP and its ally the NPP.

Interestingly no one is even talking about the regional parties. They have slipped out of our collective consciousness because of their own infirmities. What is the point of the UDP, HSPDP, KHNAM, PDF, GNC – a total of five regional fronts fighting elections on separate planks. What prevents them from uniting on a single platform if the idea is to serve the people? But that is hardly the case. Each of these leaders is a chief ministerial aspirant. That is the perennial problem that has plagued the regional parties of Meghalaya for decades and nothing much has changed. Their appeal is to vote them to power so that they can safeguard our culture and tradition. Other than that they have no solid electoral agenda to sell to the public. And actually no one believes that they mean business since they will never be able to get a majority. They will always have to align with a national party. This time they have not been upfront as to whom they will align with, post the results on March 3. One of the regional party honchos has denied having any truck with the NPP. That leaves an alliance with the Congress Party which of course is an old marriage of convenience tried out in the past.

Hence when people speak of ideology here it sounds rather strange. There is no ideology worth its salt hence every party must strive to be populist. It serves those who appeal for populist votes to have constituents that are not deeply embedded in existing party networks. Perhaps the Congress Party in Meghalaya and elsewhere has realised that it takes a lot of money, time and energy to mobilise party networks right down to the grassroots so it is better to appeal to populist voters who can be won over by short term promises and also by distribution of freebies. The breakdown of the party-voter connect is complete. Even in the BJP it is the RSS network and their zeal which wins votes rather than the political party machinery. Any wonder than why the RSS is wielding so much clout?

Patronage democracy is a system where the political party is made stable by a constant maintenance of a complex system of quid pro quo, in which money, goods and services flow from the party in control of the government through subordinate brokers to supporters. This ensures that the votes flow back in return. But there is a rupture in this patronage network that links political parties and voters. In the patronage system political parties are linked to voters by senior office bearers of the party who are given “posts” from which some financial benefits accrue. The problem with this arrangement is that every elected MLA from the ruling party would want his/her major supporter to be given such perks. Besides, that there are also those party MLAs from the ruling party who have lost the elections but have to be accommodated in such posts to allow for mobility so they can continue with the party work. Alas! Most of those who are appointed to such posts forget the party and become self-serving individuals who throw their weights around and thereby manage to alienate the ordinary grass-roots supporters. This is where patronage democracy collapses and populist democracy or direct appeal by candidates to their constituents work. The only problem is that today the constituents have got wiser. They don’t want to wait five years for development that may never happen. They have been victims of broken promises for too long. So they prefer ready cash before voting and let the government that comes in do what it likes. How does it matter to them anyway?

The reason one speaks about the Congress Party in the context of Meghalaya is because this is the party that has ruled Meghalaya for the longest period. Its slow decay here is due to internal rivalries where supporters of the party that have served it well in fair weather and foul are not given due recognition whereas the contractor class with its fluctuating loyalties is allowed free rein. In fact it is this contractor class that is the downfall of most political parties and results in the collapse of patronage democracy.

Populist democracy however has its pitfalls as Kenny summarises. He says that when populist leaders attain power they erode the formal and informal institutional constraints on their authority and personalize power to such an extent as to challenge the very basis of democracy. We have seen such leaders emerge in our own backyards. Many of them use the party platform simply because the party system is still the basis of our democracy and because governments are made up of political parties.  Otherwise, these populists who win through sheer money power would have ridden roughshod over any institutional handicaps. They would have used the government machinery as their private vehicle and distributed public goods as private patronage. Even with the checks and balances that is how they distribute the MLA scheme.

So as Meghalaya readies itself for the polls one can only ruminate about the results. But it’s going to be one hell of a task to predict the elections results this time. For now every political party is winning.

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