The power to centralise

Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi addressing the 57th meeting of the Board of Scientific and Industrial Research of the CSIR, in New Delhi on November 18, 1966.

Prime Minister Smt. Indira Gandhi addressing the 57th meeting of the Board of Scientific and Industrial Research of the CSIR, in New Delhi on November 18, 1966.

India has seen a centralisation of power under Narendra Modi. Some compare the current centralisation to that of Indira Gandhi, who was the first Prime Minster of India to concentrate power in the Prime Minister’s Office. But the centralisation of power in the executive branch is not unique to the Centre. In contemporary India, most States are governed by Chief Ministers who have centralised authority in their own offices. The power exercised by Mamata Banerjee, Jayalalithaa, the Badal family, Naveen Patnaik, and the Yadav family in Uttar Pradesh is too well known to need recounting. Control over patronage necessitates the accumulation of power in the offices of the Prime Minister and Chief Ministers.

A successful leader of a political party in India acts as a patron who has access to money and/or the resources of the state. Patronage is necessary to win elections and to sustain the party’s organisation. Elections are won by building coalitions of local leaders who command the votes of different sections of society. These local and State leaders win votes by acting as patrons to a segment of the electorate. Without a strong network of local and State leaders, neither Indira Gandhi nor >Mr. Modi would have come to power . A State leader would not fare any better.

Once a Prime Minister or Chief Minister is in power, he/she has to decide whether to centralise authority or to let other powerful leaders in the Cabinet or party have their way. The Constitution and the political system have left room for the Prime Minister’s Office to be as anarchic as the H.D. Deve Gowda administration or > as centralised as Indira Gandhi’s or Mr. Modi’s administrations. Decentralisation gives control over resources to other politicians in the Prime Minister’s or Chief Minister’s party. The immediate consequence of this is that if Cabinet Ministers have independent authority, they can undermine the office of the Prime Minister or Chief Minister. It is in the interest of other politicians in a ruling party to do so, as many covet the job of the Chief Minister or Prime Minister.

Party versus government Top politicians, weak and strong, continuously face threats from within their party. Internal party factionalism and the ambition often associated with politics pit one party leader against another, threatening the position of the Prime Minister or Chief Minister in power. In the 2012 Uttarakhand Assembly elections, one of the State’s most popular Congress leaders, Harish Rawat, was ignored for the post of Chief Minister and the high command decided to nominate Vijay Bahuguna for the post instead. The turf war between the two leaders then reached a low, with Mr. Rawat deciding to submit his resignation (which was later withdrawn) and even approaching the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). We’ve often seen struggles for power between Chief Ministers and State party presidents, whether in the case of the Nitish Kumar-Sharad Yadav duo (Janata Dal-United, Bihar) or the Bhupinder Singh Hooda-Ashok Tanwar struggle in Haryana. This constant internal threat to a leader’s authority and the need to maintain control of both party and government make Prime Ministers and Chief Ministers centralise power to retain their position.

Even India’s first Prime Minister, the beloved Jawaharlal Nehru, had to deal with the question of government-party dynamics. The first president of the Congress party post-Independence, J.B. Kripalani, believed that, as the party head, he was entitled to a seat at the power table within the government. The question of where power resides was only settled by Nehru’s decision to combine the functions of Prime Minister and party president in himself. Even when the post of party president was separated from the Prime Ministership, it was given to young Congress leaders with little political backing to question the Prime Minister.

The struggle for power between the office of the Prime Minister and that of the party leadership has continued since those days. Indira Gandhi had to deal with irritants in the Congress Syndicate, which eventually led to her forming the Indian National Congress (R) and replacing the old party with her own Congress party. Her daughter-in-law, Sonia, also had to do away with Sitaram Kesri, the Congress president in 1998, in a way which few would call cordial and democratic.

Why Modi’s moves make sense In the last 24 months, the events in the BJP only remind us of earlier struggles between old party leadership and rising political stars. >Mr. Modi’s rise to power was not devoid of its own power struggles . Much like the way Indira had to do away with the Syndicate to strengthen her own position, Mr. Modi too has tactically sidelined every single senior BJP leader, first during the elections and then during government formation. He brought in the 75-year retirement cut-off age and replaced every single senior party position with his own backers. Many believe that the BJP severely lacks administrative talent, having been out of power at the Centre for 10 years. That belief leads them to argue that Mr. Modi could have served government better by giving Cabinet roles to the bigwigs from the Atal Bihari Vajpayee administration such as Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie. Instead, Mr. Modi chose to sideline them, claiming lack of administrative vigour. This was a major political move by Mr. Modi which allowed him to strengthen his hold on the party and reduce the chances of ‘party elders’ questioning his performance and authority.

While most Prime Ministers have been centralisers, Manmohan Singh and P.V. Narasimha Rao are classic examples of Prime Ministers who never took it upon themselves to centralise authority in their offices. Their failure to do so saw India deal with factionalism in government and politics, loud corruption scandals, and unceremonious exits. When Rao took office in 1991, he was chosen for the post as a consensus candidate by the Congress party because most leaders believed he would allow them to function as independent power centres and not interfere in their politics. Over time, as those centres of power became more pronounced, he lost control of his own ministers and their actions. His failure to portray his power as Prime Minister in many ways led to the unceremonious end of his political career. The Congress party didn’t even allow his funeral to take place in Delhi, where India’s other Congress Prime Ministers have been cremated.

Dr. Singh’s story is only slightly different. He wasn’t a consensus candidate, but instead was hand-picked for the job by Sonia Gandhi, the single-woman party high command. As Sanjaya Baru claims in his book, The Accidental Prime Minister , Dr. Singh wasn’t even given the freedom to select his own ministers. His ministers owed their political patronage to the party president and took the liberty of making decisions without informing the Prime Minister. In an interview, Salman Khurshid stated the following about his role in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA): “[a]s External Affairs Minister, I had a pretty free run on most matters, with the Prime Minister taking special interest in the neighbourhood, our rediscovery of America, the millennium conversation with China.” Even after UPA-2 came to power by positioning the Prime Minister as their leader, Sonia Gandhi made a point of clarifying to Dr. Singh that she was in charge. She appointed Pranab Mukherjee as Finance Minister without even consulting the Prime Minister. In addition, Cabinet Ministers did not just consider themselves central leaders; they also tried to maintain their holds on their political following in the States by interfering in State politics and pushing their own agenda with the Congress high command. These individual centres of power thus weakened the hands of the Prime Minister in governance, while also weakening the party’s organisation.

The cost of centralisation While decentralisation causes havoc, political centralisation, too, comes at a cost. Indira’s centralisation unified the opposition and denigrated the Congress party’s institutions, leading to its weakening over time. In addition, during the tenure of UPA-1 and UPA-2, the central Congress leadership constantly interfered in the affairs of States, deputing both weak and strong central leaders, such as Prithviraj Chavan and Virbhadra Singh, to govern State governments. The high command’s interference disturbed political dynamics in the States, weakening party unity and increasing factionalism. Many would add that the Congress party’s high command culture even today keeps its central leadership disconnected from the various local organisations. This has led to a weakening of party organisation and was largely responsible for its failure in the 2014 general election.

India’s leaders, from Prime Minister Modi to the many State Chief Ministers, must pay close attention to how they manage their tendencies to centralise. They must tread that fine path on which they maintain control over their administrations and organisation while also giving room for political ambition to reside under their wings.

(Akshay Balwani is Managing Publisher at The Daily Californian and Pradeep Chhibber teaches political science at University of California, Berkeley.)

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Printable version | Jun 9, 2022 3:52:06 pm |