Beware the personality cult in democracies

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European companies are increasingly imitating US ones in the cult and remuneration of chief executives. Political organisation may evolve similarly as party membership declines and ideology fades.

India’s politics has many strange aspects, but none stranger than the career of the country’s most powerful political leader. Sonia Maino, who was born in a small Italian village, met Rajiv Gandhi while at language school in Cambridge. A devoted housewife who detested politics, she persuaded her husband to stick to his job as an airline pilot. But after the assassination of his mother, Rajiv entered politics at an impressively advanced level, prime minister of a country of almost 1bn people.

Six years after Rajiv’s murder, Sonia also went into politics at the top: she became leader of the Congress party. When Congress won the 2004 election, Mrs Gandhi surprised many by declining to be prime minister and appointing an able technocrat, Manmohan Singh, instead. To her great credit she recognised that she has no relevant political aptitude or experience, but two powerful qualifications. She is the widow of the grandson of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and she bears the name of India’s most celebrated political figure (to whom neither she nor her dead husband was related).

Dynastic succession is common to the subcontinent. In Pakistan, the husband and 19-year-old son of the murdered Benazir Bhutto are expected to fill her political role. The first woman prime minister anywhere in the world was Sri Lanka’s Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who succeeded her husband. The politics of Bangladesh is polarised between the equally unpleasant Begums Hasina and Zia, widows of former presidents.

It seems surprising that voters should display such attachment to political dynasties, but what is true of the world’s largest democracy is true also of its second-largest. After the New Hampshire victory of the senator from New York, a Clinton is once more favourite to succeed a Bush in the White House.

Meritocratic selection of leaders is the exception, not the rule. Systems of patronage and preferment are universal and the normal locus of such patronage and preferment is the family business, based on individual property rights and personal fealty. This is equally characteristic of great landed estates, the business interests of the Rockefellers, Fords or Murdochs and the courts of the Plantagenets and Bourbons.

The achievement of advanced democracies has been to replace these structures by the rational bureaucratic organisation of political parties, just as advanced economics have largely replaced family businesses by the rational bureaucratic organisation of the large corporation.

But political parties in many countries have little purpose beyond the advancement of their members. In the Indian subcontinent, parties are family businesses whose trade is politics. Russia’s fledgling democracy became the court of Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. Even in the rich world, constant vigilance is required to protect organisations from capture by individuals. The modern American corporation has become increasingly a vehicle for the aggrandisement and enrichment of those who control it. Political parties in the US have long been weaker than in Europe and the rising costs of electioneering have made the fundraising machine, not the party, the fount of patronage.

Western Europe has largely escaped the appropriation of organisations by personalities, in both the economic and the political sphere. But European companies are increasingly imitating US ones in the cult and remuneration of chief executives. Political organisation may evolve similarly as party membership declines and ideology fades. Political fundraising is now increasingly to and through individuals, not parties. The significance of the Peter Hain scandal, in which a UK minister failed to disclose donations to his campaign for the Labour deputy leadership, lies not in the unauthorised donations but in the scale of his expenditure on self-promotion. More disturbing still is the so-called think-tank whose purpose is not to develop political ideas, but to advance personal ambitions. We need tight regulation of political donations and state funding of political parties to save us from the rule of the begums – even if their names are Clinton and Gandhi.

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