The world’s political elephants are slowly dying off – those huge, all-encompassing political parties that dominated nations for decades.
If there was any doubt that the age of the mega-party is over, observe the fall of grace this week of the mighty Indian National Congress. It is the world’s most elephantine political party; no other is so large, so old, so possessed of long memory, so respected for its stability and grace, and so plodding, slow-moving and changeless.
People will argue over whether Narendra Modi, India’s new Prime Minister, is the shrewd economic reformer India badly needs, a dangerous Hindu supremacist who will threaten India’s great tradition of pluralism, or both. But there is another important debate that should be held, one relevant to the whole world, over why Congress has failed India, and whether big-tent national parties are good for national development.
Congress may continue in name – after all, it survived its last defeats to Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, in the late 1990s. But it seems certain that this time, the party will never be the same.
Nearly 130 years after it became the movement that would almost singlehandedly create independent India (and whose mismanagement of that change forced the deadly partition of Pakistan), and after governing India for 49 of its 67 years, there is a sense among Indians that Congress is no longer the Natural Governing Party.
In this, it joins the other great grey behemoths of the postcolonial age: The African National Congress is stalled in the ditch and being pulled apart. Egypt’s National Democratic Party was overthrown by its subjects in 2011. Pakistan’s dynastic parties, descended from the founding Muslim League, are giving way to new independent upstarts such as Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf. There is little public faith in the monarchies and one-party states of Africa and the Middle East. Latin America’s intergenerational mega-parties have largely vanished from the scene (Cuba’s Castro clan notwithstanding). China’s Communist Party soldiers on, powerful and unchallenged, but it is the exception that proves the rule, in large part by eschewing democracy.
What unites these parties is that they were generally celebrated for having ushered in their countries’ independence, then provided people with security against outside threats, oversaw the establishment of industry and the birth of a middle class, and provided at least some unity among competing clans, faiths and factions. Then, they stalled and turned inward.
Most became protective of their ruling families and cossetted bureaucracies, employing the language of progressive change to deliver regressive stagnation. Mexico’s once-mighty elephant party, which ruled for decades (and is now back in power, reformed), captured this trend in its very name: Party of the Institutionalized Revolution.
India fared better than most, but Congress did not have a spotless record: During the two-year “emergency” in the 1970s, Indira Gandhi became an all-out tyrant after suspending democracy, imprisoning the opposition and ruling by decree.
Yet Congress’s deepest flaw, its constant failing since even before independence, has been its desire not to transform India, but to preserve it. From Jawaharlal Nehru onward, it has been devoted to keeping people and institutions in their place.
For decades, Congress has fetishized the peasant farmer and the poor villager, and protected the established state-backed middle class, while discouraging mobility between the two. It has done this by offering meagre handouts to subsistence farmers and corrupt food markets rather than incentives to consolidate and commercialize them. It has discouraged development of industry by subsidizing consumption. It has prevented land development for job-generating purposes, and it has favoured the state-backed industries of the already wealthy against the entrepreneurial industries of the once-poor. It has allowed corrupt and impenetrable institutions to misgovern big cities, transportation networks, police and trade. It has failed to offer anything beyond symbolic outrage on crises of rape, starvation, gross sexual discrimination, corruption and official brutality.
India is fissured with terrible divides of class, caste and sex, and these have by several measures grown worse, not better, in recent decades. It has more starvation-level poverty than all of Africa, and among the worst living conditions for women in the world. Now that it is a country with real economic resources, there’s no excuse for this.
Change carries risks, especially in a country where democracy and pluralist harmony are rare assets. But to get change started, it’s worth a trip to the elephant’s graveyard.