The president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Amit Shah, addressing a "national writers meeting" organised last week by a research outfit with links to the Sangh Parivar, made an important point about the direction of Indian politics. "If you look at the trajectory of most parties," said Mr Shah, "you will see that they have declined due to lack of ideological growth". He mentioned specifically the parties that had sprung from the indigenous socialist movement associated with Ram Manohar Lohia; after a series of splits, they "later came to represent single caste groups and now more sadly, only particular families". The Congress, too, he said, "has gone down that road". Only the BJP, according to him, had stuck to its ideological core, and thereby managed to avoid becoming dominated by a single family.
Mr Shah is quite correct, and has put his finger on one of the central tragedies of Indian politics. A ruthless pragmatism that avoids all ideological commitment might indeed provide political parties some short-term benefits - but it eventually kills the genuine internal debate that throws up fresh leadership. And, without debate and leadership challenges born of ideological disputation, parties will inevitably become family affairs. After all, the only other exception to this degradation in the Indian political spectrum, besides the BJP, are the Communist parties - which also prize ideology. This prioritisation of ideology, together with a strong cadre system to which ideological commitment gives birth, have kept such parties from succumbing to the disease of dynasty.
This is a potent argument, and one that Mr Shah has repeated more than once. Just over the past month, he has made it several times. For example, he attacked the Samajwadi Party (SP) in Uttar Pradesh - one of the heirs of Lohiaite socialism that has now become the personal property of Mulayam Singh Yadav's family - as a party of "one family and goons", which no ordinary party worker could hope to one day lead. In Telangana, too, he attacked the state ruling party - the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) of Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao - as a family organisation that lacked internal democracy, and was thus incapable of properly developing the state. He noted, after the BJP practically swept Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 general elections, that the only seats it failed to win were those in which it went up against family members of the Congress or the SP dynasties.
Mr Shah's words should give all the BJP's political competitors pause. Parties that fail to offer opportunities for advancement will eventually find themselves abandoned by workers, and discover that internal democracy atrophies. And without internal democracy, policy responses will not be alive to the changes in voter preferences. Parties will become mechanisms for propagating the rule of a family, instead of places where new people and new ideas can be brought into the political process, or ways to engage in ideological combat over policy options. Both for their own sakes and for the sake of Indian democracy, political parties besides the BJP and the Left - whether regional parties like the TRS, the SP, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Akalis, or national parties like the Congress - should prioritise internal democracy and end family rule.