Vanaprastha: Indian ​Parties Get Wiser About Easing Out Eminent Old Leaders

23/05/2016 12:26 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Kerala Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan reads a document during the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Polit Bureau meeting in New Delhi on February 14, 2009. The Congress in Kerala said the party expected that the ongoing meeting of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau in New Delhi would take an appropriate decision on the SNC Lavalin issue. Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president Ramesh Chennithala, who was leading a statewide 'Kerala Raksha' march, said the Polit Bureau would take a reasonable decision on the CBI request seeking the nod of the Kerala government for prosecution of the accused, including CPI(M) State Secretary Pinarayi Vijayan. AFP PHOTO/ Prakash SINGH (Photo credit should read PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)

Edging out ‘difficult’ veterans, prone to dissenting opinions, has been a tricky job for political parties. But they are getting better at the job. Of late, political parties on both the right and the left have hit upon the perfect formula for dispensing with such party elders. Their solution takes a leaf out of a famous line often repeated by the late protest singer-songwriter Pete Seeger: “The only thing worse than banning a song is making it official.”

Rather than pulling up or disciplining elderly dissidents, political parties have taken to either conferring fancy but empty ceremonial titles on these seniors, or – better still – creating vacuous, ornamental posts, effectively shunting them out of decision-making.

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The latest example of such crafty leadership management comes from Kerala. On the heels of the Left Democratic Front’s victory (LDF), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) elected one of its top leaders, Pinarayi Vijayan as Chief Minister, bypassing VS Achuthanandan, the other stalwart who – despite his advanced years – had tirelessly campaigned in the polls, and was instrumental in ensuring LDF’s victory. Announcing the decision last Friday, CPI-M General Secretary Sitaram Yechury said the reason for not choosing the 92-year-old Achuthanandan was his advanced age.

CPI-M General Secretary Sitaram Yechury said the reason for not choosing the 92-year-old Achuthanandan was his advanced age.

But the party nevertheless offered VS a consolation prize by likening his future role to that of Cuba’s legendary Fidel Castro. “Comrade VS is like Fidel Castro in Cuba where he acts in an advisor's role. Like Castro, VS will play that role here,” Yechury told the media. Unlike Fidel, VS however, is in no mood to withdraw from politics. If anything, his comments following his party’s announcement suggest he will continue to be a thorn in Vijayan’s side.

What then does Achuthanandan’s Castro-like status mean? Given his bitter rivalry with Vijayan, his suggestions are unlikely to find a listening ear. Asked if he felt short shrifted by the party’s decision, VS – according to an IANS report – quipped: “You wait and see” – a loaded reply, not portending well for the new incumbent. This isn’t the first time the party has resorted to such grand but empty gestures. On the eve of CPI-M’s 18th Congress in 2005, Sitaram Yechury described Harkishen Singh Surjeet and Jyoti Basu – the party’s two most prominent faces – as “living legends.”

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Strangely though, the “living legends” had mostly found themselves vetoed by majority in the Central Committee. The CPI-M’s problem-solving formula has striking resemblance to a solution earlier crafted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). With Narendra Modi becoming Prime Minister in 2014, the writing on the wall became clear for one of his staunchest adversaries – veteran leader L K Advani.

Strangely though, the “living legends” had mostly found themselves vetoed by majority in the Central Committee. 

The hunt for an exit formula for him (and other critical veterans like Murli Manohar Joshi,) began soon after Modi and his trusted deputy, Amit Shah – took control of the BJP. In a move parallel to the ‘Castro position,’ the BJP created a new body with the suspiciously high-sounding title of Margdarshak Mandal, ostensibly to elevate Advani, Joshi and the ailing Atal Bihari Vajpayee to a higher status. In a discussion on CNN-IBN, BJP spokesperson G V L N Rao said that “the Margdarshak panel is a body of very eminent leaders to guide the party leadership. It is a very respectable way of including them in the party affairs. The role of the Margdarshak Mandal will be more advisory in nature ...”

The uncanny resonance between Rao’s and Yechury’s words is indeed difficult to ignore. The exit formula BJP pulled out from its hat has worked admirably. The ‘difficult’ seniors are now well and truly out of the party’s way. The last time Advani and Joshi were heard protesting was in November - after the BJP’s electoral loss in Bihar. Teaming up with Yashwant Sinha and Shanta Kumar, the elders charged the Modi-Shah duo with “emasculating” the party. That brief outburst however ended with a whimper and since then all has been quiet in the Margdarshak quarters.

The uncanny resonance between Rao’s and Yechury’s words is indeed difficult to ignore.

This banishment of elders from active political life reminds one of the Vanaprastha system in the Hindu tradition, wherein partly elders are retired in a forest of wisdom. While in Hinduism such withdrawal from the world is meant to be voluntary, faced by veterans in no mood to retire, parties have had to devise ways of elevating them into irrelevance.

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