India Focus

S t r a t e g i c    A n a l y s i s    a n d    F o r e c a s t s

Vol 2, No 3

July 1997


Politics    •    Business        Economy    •    Society        Culture    •    Diplomacy


Political Leaders:

Who’s Climbing to the Top ?


 India has witnessed unprecedented political churning since 1987, the year when the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government got embroiled in the Bofors scandal, and many more new political faces have emerged in these last ten years than in all the preceding 40 years put together.  For instance, Mulayam Singh (current Defense Minister) was then an unknown provincial legislator, Mayawati (current chief minister of Uttar Pradesh) was just an ordinary school teacher , and IK Gujral (current Prime Minister) was not even active in politics. All of this has left most foreign investors quite confused: they just do not know which political actors to track or with whom to develop contacts. While the current spate of volatility is likely to continue in the short to medium term, we believe that certain pre-requisite traits are going to be needed by Indian politicians for long term success.  These include popularity with grass-roots party cadres, importance within the party either as vote-catcher or deal maker,  ability to get along with others, boldness of action, and ease in front of the electronic media.

So just who will be important 10 years from now ?  We take a look at the next generation of politicians, and offer our prediction on the key leaders in early part of the twenty-first century along with their likely attitude towards reforms/foreign investors.


SUSHMA SWARAJ (BJP):
She started as a student leader in the 70’s, campaigned vigorously against the Indira Gandhi-led Congress regime, and went on to become the youngest minister in India during the Janata Party government in the northern state of Haryana. She joined the BJP in 1980 and, though she is a relative newcomer to BJP, her influence within the party has grown rapidly due to her loyalty to party philosophy, organizational ability, parliamentary skills and gender (Swaraj is the leading woman leader of the BJP). She has been a member of the parliament since 1991 and won the prestigious South Delhi constituency in 1996 in a tough contest. She is well charismatic, highly articulate, has great television presence and manages to keep a sense of quiet dignity even in the most adversarial circumstances. On the other hand she sometimes displays a very self righteous and narrow social view, and is a leading critic of "Western invasion" of Indian culture. Coming from an urban middle class background she is likely to favour internal reformist measures such as public sector privatization, greater spending on infrastructure and healthcare..etc but is also likely to oppose unrestricted access to MNCs in consumer goods and entertainment industry. Though she readily meets visitors she also has firm ideological underpinnings which will make her unswayed by lobbying and persuasion.


PRAMOD MAHAJAN (BJP):
He was initiated into the RSS (the socio-religious umbrella group of the Hindu nationalists) at a very young age and now, ironically, represents the modern face of the orthodox organization. He was an important leader of the student wing of the BJP and has risen rapidly within the party on account of his proximity with party cadres, organizational skills and fund-raising ability. He has good ties with many Indian industrialists and political leaders, and is the chief architect of the BJP-Shiv Sena coalition government in Maharashtra. Mahajan is an extremely skilled orator, very knowledgeable about other countries, pragmatic, confident and sharp. He is opposed to the controversial swadeshi view --which supports local industry over foreign investors -- of one faction of the BJP but he is unlikely to become a crusader for business interests, either domestic or foreign. Mahajan is tipped to be the BJP’s president some day and is perhaps one of the most important leaders of tomorrow. He heads (or is a member of) important parliamentary committees and, at a minimum, will play a key role in legislative changes required for investor-friendly policies and laws. Mahajan is one of the most open and accessible BJP leaders, and is known to be pliable to lobbying as long as the right buttons are pressed.


RAJESH PILOT (Congress):
He is a backward class leader with peasant roots in north India and is equally acceptable to both rural and urban voters. He was earlier a part of the young brigade promoted by Rajiv Gandhi but has slowly moved away from his dependency on the Gandhi family and is carving out his own political following. He earned high marks as the junior interior minister in the Rao government where he displayed a capacity for individual initiative in tough situations. He is one of the few Congress politicians with a clean image, has good relations with other political parties, is young and ambitious, and is slowly positioning himself to assume leadership of the Congress party in the future. He is likely to play an important role in future coalition governments. His position on economic issues is currently ambiguous (like most Congress politicians) and his tendency to seize political opportunities makes him even more unpredictable: he will oppose or support economic policies to suit shifting public opinion.


MARGARET ALVA (Congress): Alva was given her first break in politics in 1974 when Indira Gandhi got her elected to the Rajya Sabha (upper house of Parliament) and then made her a key member of the Indian delegation to the UN summit during the International Women’s Year. She has been a member of the Rajya Sabha since then without a break. Though not a political heavyweight, she has assiduously cultivated important political leaders and is generally liked by both political supporters and opponents. She is likely to remain important within the Congress party for the multiple "minority" advantages she brings: Christian, woman and from the South. She has carved her own niche by championing liberal social causes, such as women, education and environment, and has strong links with media, activists and intellectuals (her sons are well known producers of an award winning TV series). Alva is sophisticated and charming, and very much a part of the Delhi cocktail circuit, but her advocacy of social issues puts her in natural opposition to many MNC-friendly policies. She is likely to be a champion of ‘restrained’ liberalization.


A K ANTHONY (Congress): He started out as a student leader in the late 1960s in Kerala, was the first Congress leader to take the communists head on, and was instrumental in reviving the Congress in a Left-ruled state. He is immensely popular in Kerala and, having already been chief minister once, is now likely to play an important rile at the center. He is the most honest Congress leader today and is half-jokingly known as "St. Anthony" for his austere lifestyle and refusal to dish out favours to friends. But it is precisely for this reason that he is poised to emerge as a key Congress leader who will shape the policies of the party in the future. Anthony represents that section within Congress that is skeptical of supporting a centrist coalition without demanding a price in terms of participation and adequate representation in government. Since his main adversary (in his home state) are the communists he has to per force ideologically strike a liberal posture, and is likely to support the speeding up of economic liberalization. He is however a very laid-back administrator and a slow decision maker, and this could negate some of his investor-friendly pronouncements.


NITISH KUMAR (Samata Party): He started his political career as student leader in the mid 1970s, became a member of parliament for the first time in 1989 and has now become one of the most important anti-Congress politicians in the state of Bihar. He was a key player during the early 90s in the aggressive struggle for political power by the backward classes of northern India, but broke away from the Janata Dal in 1994 to form the Samata Party (which is now allied with the BJP). He continues to be a very popular leader in Bihar and is tipped to be its future chief minister. Though he is not very sophisticated he is also sharp, articulate and patient. Being a left-leaning socialist he is more concerned with issues of social justice rather than economic policy, and is likely to be neutral towards foreign investors as long as his support base of lower castes is not affected.


RAM VILAS PASWAN (Janata Dal): He created history in 1977 when he became the youngest member of parliament in India, and yet again when he won the parliamentary elections in 1989 with the highest victory margin ever in the world. He is one of the most popular low caste Hindu leaders of his generation and, with the balance of power slowly shifting away from upper caste groups, will very likely be a candidate for the Prime Minister at some point in the future. Unlike many of his other colleagues Paswan is soft and well-mannered in dealing with people and makes it a point not to antagonize anybody. He is thus more acceptable to upper caste groups than any other low caste leader. He exhibits great patience in difficult times, has built a good rapport with leftist intellectuals and is becoming increasingly media savvy. His socialist background makes him lukewarm towards foreign investors, but he can be influenced.  He is known to be particularly heedful of his supporters from Bihar for whom he is known to have pressed many buttons in the corridors of power.

 

MULAYAM SINGH YADAV (SP): He started out as a ruthless village level politician in Uttar Pradesh and, within fifteen years of meteoric political rise, has now become the defense minister of the country. He consolidated his anti-BJP support base among Muslims and medium caste Hindus during an earlier tenure as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, and has somewhat expanded his appeal by diluting his previous combative style of politics. He has good relations with most political parties, except the BJP and the BSP for whom he remains an anathema. Though his influence is limited to UP he will continue to be important in national politics because 1) he is one of the few leaders who can stop the BJP’s domination of the northern Hindi heartland, and 2) his support base is strong enough to guarantee him a significant parliamentary strength for post-election bargaining in any centrist coalition. Yadav is close to power brokers and is accessible to lobbyists.


CHANDRA BABU NAIDU (TDP): He entered politics in his late twenties and became a junior minister in a Congress-led government in the state of Andhra Pradesh. He switched allegiance to the Telegu Desam party in the mid-1980s after marrying the daughter of NT Rama Rao (founder of Telegu Desam) and went on to become the second in command to NTR. He however fell out with NTR in 1995 and led a "palace coup" to replace NTR as the chief minister. He has since then consolidated his hold in the state, and has risen to national prominence because of his key role in the fractured United Front. He has strong ties with Left parties, remains suspicious of the Janata Dal (which had refused to support him earlier in his fight against NTR’s political faction) and is easily the most promising politician from southern India. He is an excellent party manager, pragmatist (he revoked prohibition in Andhra Pradesh) and liberal on economic issues. He is likely to be a tough negotiator but also a supporter of greater reforms and investor-friendly policies. Naidu could perhaps be the MNCs’ best friend in the new disposition.


SITARAM YECHURY (CPI-M): It may surprise foreign investors to know that unlike in Eastern Europe the Communist movement in India remains popular (though strong only in certain pockets), even if only as moral and mediating role in the fractured and corrupt politics of the country. Yechury represents the new leadership of the Left parties which, unlike older generations, is neither dogmatic nor militant in their thinking. He entered the Communist Party of India (Marxists) during his student days and was a leader of the CPI-M’s students wing. He was elevated to the party politburo in 1992, the youngest member ever, and is now one of its main public spokesmen. His Andhra origin makes acceptable to both the West Bengal and Kerala factions which are in a tussle for party leadership. Though he is articulate and suave, and can cross comfortably from protest marches to the cocktail circuit, Yechury will continue to oppose economic reforms and foreign investment if they are seen as a threat to the Communists’ main constituency: industrial workers. He is however close to many writers, editors and journalists who can be helpful to foreign investors in informally gauging his possible reflexes.


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India Focus is a private-circulation report for senior international executives, bankers and diplomats, and is issued six times a year. Reproduction in any form is strictly prohibited. It is published by Business Foundations, a political risk consultancy which advises foreign investors on political scenarios, business trends, social changes, economic outlook, investment conditions and other high-level issues which may affect Indian business plans and strategy. To subscribe to India Focus or to know more about us, contact us via phone, fax or email. Or else, visit us at our website:

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