How succession can make or break a party

A political party can survive the test of time only if its brand value stays intact— which is dependent on whom popular leaders pass the baton to. The case of the Shiv Sena is an example of how things can go wrong if poor choices are made.

The driving force behind the success of any sector in the public domain is the dominant perception of its respective brands amongst recipients. The better the perception, the higher the acceptance! There are numerous examples to be analysed of how popular brands had to bite the dust only because their choice of succession had been based on impractical decisions. Look at Nokia’s journey from being the “king of the phone era” to “struggling for survival”, or that of the late Dhirubhai Ambani, whose business was divided between his two sons, Mukesh and Anil Ambani. The economic scenarios of the two, if compared, have become case studies for understanding the importance of succession.

 Even politics has not escaped from being grappled with this phenomenon of brand perception. Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut has made an appeal recently to MNS chief Raj Thackeray, requesting to step up his efforts and play a vital role in preserving the ‘Thackeray’ brand in Maharashtra’s politics.

 As far as the concept of brands is concerned, one has to understand that this particular concept is a marketdriven phenomenon which can be defined as a general idea and an abstract meaning that gives a certain consistency to a brand and creates a distinctive identity in the market and the minds of consumers, or voters, in the case of politics. This is also built over the years.

 In the case of the Shiv Sena, which was established by the late Balasaheb Thackeray years ago, it became a widely accepted brand in the Mumbai circles initially since its ideological foundation was based on regional chauvinism. However, with changing times, Balasaheb moved on to the issue of Hindutva, which later resulted in the party extending its base across the entire state of Maharashtra. The brand of the Shiv Sena was also associated with its karyakartas, who worshipped their party leader because Balasaheb Thackeray’s credibility and acceptance had percolated through the minds of his party workers.

 However, when it came to appointing his successor, Balasaheb chose his son, Uddhav, over the largely accepted leadership of Raj Thackeray who was seen as the mirror image of Balasaheb. Raj, having learned the basics of politics from Balasaheb himself, could naturally dive into the nature of the politics of the Shiv Sena. However, with the choice of a blood relation over a more politically deserving person, the late Shiv Sena supremo certainly could not manage and navigate through his succession plan. As a result of the choice not being done using the correct equations, political perils were likely to be encountered. And thence commenced the devolution of the “Thackeray” brand in Maharashtra! 

The situation now is such that at a time when the Thackeray scion is none other than the chief minister of Maharashtra, his close confidante has appealed to Raj Thackeray to help save the brand of Thackeray. What can be understood from here is that the devolution of a brand, no matter how huge it is, is inevitable if succession is based on emotion or nepotism, rather than pragmatism. Change is the only constant in nature and those who fail to adapt with the changing times are bound to fall.

 The BJP is often regarded as the party with a difference. Currently, the BJP is a brand which is much bigger than all the political parties in the country combined. However, the party’s image is marked by its choice of pragmatism and not nepotism. While it is a fact established beyond doubt that the next successor of the Congress will be someone among the Gandhis, or that the successor to Uddhav Thackeray and Raj Thackeray will be Aaditya and Amit, no one in the wildest of their imaginations can name the next BJP national president. 

This is the difference between the brand of the BJP and other political parties. The BJP’s brand is based not on one person’s capability but on the ideologies derived from the efforts made by numerous generations. Having said so, it should be mentioned that the torchbearer of the same changes from time to time in the most democratic manner. 

As far as the appointing of a successor for the party is concerned, the names of the party’s leaders can point to the fact that the decision is based on merit. While there was the era of Syama Prasad Mukherjee and Deen Dayal Upadhyay, there was also a successful reign handled by the combination of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani. Similarly, later choices involved the likes of Pramod Mahajan, Arun Jaitley, Nitin Gadkari and Rajnath Singh. 

Even now, when our leaders are none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP president J.P. Nadda, efficient leaders who have the potential to lead the party in the future are being nurtured and trained from their nascent stages. While thinking of the next ten years, one also has to bear in mind the thought of who can hold the reins for the ten years thereafter! Then one may think of Devendra Fadnavis or Yogi Adityanath. Tejasvi Surya, a party worker who went on to become a Member of Parliament, is also an example of how the BJP believes in making merit-based choices. This practice can also be traced in the RSS where every successor has set a paradigm to be followed, while the organisation evolves and grows stronger. 

The most important aspect of the phenomenon of maintaining a brand is to have a strong foundation based on principles and ideologies which have to be improvised with changing times. While making these changes, if the next successor who is appointed is contrary to the needs and requirements of the brand, then decline is inevitable. This is exactly what has happened in the Shiv Sena. 

Ever since Uddhav Thackeray became the chief minister and appointed his son as a minister, disdain for the brand of the Shiv Sena commenced. While the first dent on the party brand appeared due to its mismanagement of the state’s governance, the dent only grew deeper with Uddhav Thackeray’s inefficiency in handling the Covid-19 situation. The last nail in the coffin was struck when the Shiv Sena lost the battle of popular perception amidst the Kangana Ranaut versus BMC row. This incident caused the brand image of the Shiv Sena to fall to its lowest. 

The situation could have been entirely different had the late Balasaheb Thackeray appointed the correct successor. The case of the Shiv Sena verily makes it clear that taking a pragmatic decision while deciding on matters of succession is ultimately the key to a lasting brand!

 The writer is the media head of BJP Maharashtra. The views expressed are personal.