Look across the political and electoral spectrum in India, and try to identify mass leaders. By definition, they should be strong, stand alone types, capable of rousing people with stirring speeches, which could include filling up New Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan, Patna’s Gandhi Maidan, the Marina in Chennai, Azad Park in Mumbai or the numerous grounds that are used for political rallies throughout the land.
It comes as sobering realisation that beyond a clutch of leading politicians –and they can be counted on the fingers –the breed of mass leaders have virtually disappeared in this country.
Outside of Narendra Modi, Mamata Banerjee, Lalu Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav of the old, and Navin Patnaik, there are not many who qualify for this distinction.
To be sure, south India has its quota of mass leaders in Chandrababu Naidu, K Chandrasekar Rao and VS Achuthanandan, who represents the once-hoary Left tradition, but beyond their own bailiffs and states, they rarely so much as venture out even in peak election time.
In other words, the mass leaders of the yesteryears - the Nehrus, Lohias, Vajpayees, the Left stalwarts, MGR and Karunanidhis and several others before them, are now a thing of the past.
It is revealing to ask why it has panned out this way. After all, a vibrant multi-party democracy like India should have been brimming with orators, flamboyant mass leaders and stalwarts who could have generally made a difference. Remember, there are a total of 1,841 parties registered with the Election Commission of India, of which seven are national parties, as many as 52 state parties and incredibly, 1,785 unrecognised parties, making India a democracy without a parallel.
Yet, there are not more than a dozen politicians who can stand up and hold the attention of a million people for an hour, in a country of 900- million plus voters.
The roots of this anomaly lie in the country’s deep-seated feudal politics, never mind the copious lip service to democracy and other such western concepts.
The Congress, which could boast of several mass leaders in the course of the freedom struggle, who could and did sway people towards non-cooperation and other forms of protest against British rule, slowly started to disappear from public life as it gradually settled into the role of the ruling party.
Jawaharlal Nehru’s period was not bereft of such stalwarts. BC Roy in Bengal, Pratap Singh Kairon in Punjab, SK Sinha in Bihar and Gobind Ballabh Pant in UP, were among the leaders who dominated the political spectrum in the provinces, along with several other independence-era stalwarts like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, CD Deshmukh and Jagjivan Ram, who held fort at the Centre.
The rot can be traced to the Indira Gandhi period in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when every single leader of any consequence, beginning with K Kamaraj, was shafted out of the Congress system and the political networks, quite systematically and ruthlessly.
Things reached such a pass by the late 1970s that there was little scope for any mass leader to have any place in a political system dominated by the Congress. Stalwart chief ministers were replaced by family minions, who had no mass base nor any support among state MLAs, which until then was the principle criterion for selecting chief ministers.
In fact, it became a liability to be a mass leader and an asset to be a political lightweight, as it opened the doors of political office.
Even today, the Congress is paying the price. One of the main reasons for their political decimation is the absence of any popular leader outside of the Gandhi-Nehru family, whose fading aura has coincided with the corresponding rise of the BJP.
The all powerful, overbearing and dominant Congress culture took its toll across the political spectrum. Political parties, as a rule, began to look for ways to whittle down any leader of promise, who could become a potential challenger, making sure that he or she was sent to oblivion.
So by the 1980s and 1990s, the leaders who did manage to build a bridge with the masses, did so by default and through sheer happenstance. Mamata Banerjee, for instance, fought her way up the Youth Congress ladder because she got the opportunities and was willing to take her chances, and not because of any encouragement provided to her from any political quarter.
Similarly, Lalu Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Nitish Kumar found the JP movement in the mid-1970s as their ladder to establish themselves as leaders of consequence. There was no question of anyone encouraging them to reach where they did, except their own reflexes, instincts and guile.
Down south in Tamil Nadu, the likes of MGR, Karunanidhi and Jayalalitha used the powerful Tamil film movement to make their presence felt and gradually but steadily, expanded their mass base.
But having reached the positions that they did, these politicians turned out to be no different. Parties that they headed became family enterprises (save Nitish), where no outsider, let alone a mass leader, was ever going to be encouraged.
Things have remained that way. Why, even today, the country’s most important political entity, the BJP, cannot boast of one single popular national leader outside of Narendra Modi. While the dynamics of a cadre-based party like the BJP or the Left are entirely different, for one reason or the other, they too have failed to produce a leader, whose writ runs large through the length and breadth of the Indian republic.