PARLEY Comment

Is the BJP high command calling the shots in States?

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has changed five Chief Ministers in four States this year. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home State, Gujarat, is the latest to see a change of guard. Are these changes a sign of anti-incumbency in these States or are they a sign that power is concentrated in the hands of the Central leadership? Harish Khare and Sudheendra Kulkarni debate this in a discussion moderated by Sandeep Phukan. Edited excerpts:

By changing Chief Ministers before the end of their tenures, is the BJP admitting that there is anti-incumbency? Or is this an adoption of the high command culture that the Congress was once known for?

Harish Khare: I am not very comfortable with this concept of anti-incumbency. Anti-incumbency is a word made respectable by L.K. Advani after the Rajnath Singh government was voted out of power in Uttar Pradesh in 2002. The concept implies that it doesn’t matter how well a government performs; that after four-five years, negativity will accumulate, and the voters will vote out the government. But the record right now belies this. We have this extraordinary phenomenon of Naveen Patnaik [Chief Minister of Odisha] ruling the State for 20 years without any song and dance, without any extravagant claims to national or global glory. I mean, a government is voted out because the ruling party is not able to do as smart a politics as it should do and those who are in the Opposition do a better job of galvanising the voters. By the same reckoning, the ruling party does well if it marshals resources well and the BJP has done that in Gujarat for 20 years. So, where is the question of anti-incumbency? As far as I am concerned, there is nothing called anti-incumbency in Gujarat. The issues that need to be analysed in detail are whether the Central leadership wants to [be in] control or how much it can and should control.


Sudheendra Kulkarni: What it shows is that at a time when the BJP accuses the Congress of having a high command culture, where whatever fatwa is issued by the high command in New Delhi is unquestioningly followed by the satraps in the States, the same is happening now in the BJP. It’s not just high command culture, it is super high command culture that has set in, in the BJP.

There was a time when the BJP used to talk of a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ [Congress-free India]. What we are seeing is ‘Congressisation’ of the BJP units and the democratically elected governments in various States. So, there is both anti-incumbency and, more importantly, concentration of power in New Delhi that is at work. Why am I saying that anti-incumbency is at work? Look at Gujarat: after Narendra Modi ceased to be Chief Minister of Gujarat and went to Delhi to become the Prime Minister, his trusted colleague Anandiben Patel became the Chief Minister. But before the 2017 Assembly election, she was replaced because there was chief ministerial anti-incumbency, not anti-incumbency against the BJP. The party felt that it cannot perhaps come back to power with the same person at the helm. The same pattern is being repeated now. Elections are due in Gujarat in 2022 and Vijay Rupani has been replaced. There was no confidence in the BJP that it can come back to power in 2022 with Mr. Rupani as the Chief Minister and so it has brought in Bhupendra Patel, a total nobody. He is a first-time MLA, not known outside Ahmedabad, and is hardly a leader of Gujarat. But because the high command or the super high command wanted to control Gujarat and wanted to continue to govern Gujarat from New Delhi, they installed a person who is a nobody but is answerable to the two top leaders of the BJP.

It is ironical that when Mr. Modi was the Chief Minister, he used to talk about Gujarat’s asmita or self-pride. That is, ‘We will not let New Delhi dictate terms to Gujarat. Gujarat’s asmita is supreme for us’. It is now blindly following diktats from New Delhi even though it’s from the same party’s leadership. But this is yet another instance of how the concentration of power in New Delhi is undercutting democracy in State after State.

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The sole purpose of bringing in Mr. Patel as Chief Minister now, with less than a year to go before the Assembly election, is to have a particular person from a dominant caste. And from what I hear from political observers in Gujarat, the reason for making this particular person as the Chief Minister is also that he is not someone very popular and therefore, he lends himself very easily to be dictated by New Delhi.

Is weak leadership in the States a natural corollary of having a powerful and strong leader at the Centre? This used to be the Congress template during Indira Gandhi’s time. Many argue that, in any case, it is the Prime Minister who gets votes and that is why the Central leadership has the moral authority to make changes the way it likes.

Harish Khare: If we remove the personalities, we look at how to govern a continental polity like ours. That is a fundamental issue; in a way, we are trying to run a democratic empire. I have always believed in that. Except once, no political party has got more than 50% of the vote share. Those who come to power at the Centre have to find a way of running this vast country.

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The Indian National Congress was at its best because it became a political instrument of the Indian state. The BJP is today facing the same structural problem. It is running the country and has more than 300 seats in the Lok Sabha. It has to decide how much to control and how much initiative to leave to the States.

If we leave out the Nehruvian years, then we have three distinct phases: the Indira Gandhi phase, the Rajiv Gandhi phase and the Narendra Modi phase where the Prime Minister is the principal vote-getter. The Prime Minister does not depend on State allies or on other parties to make up the numbers. So, the Prime Minister wants to control his State. This is basic given the political realities of life. So, in many ways, the BJP was being hypocritical when it accused the Congress; it is no longer entitled to ride on a moral high horse by claiming that it has no high command culture. The high command culture gets built into the need for directly controlling and operating the politics of a continental polity like ours.

Sudheendra Kulkarni: Now, this is precisely what the BJP used to criticise the Congress for. When the Congress was led by Mrs. Gandhi, there was a popular saying those days that even if the Congress puts up a pole as its candidate, that lifeless pole would get elected. People voted for Mrs. Gandhi and not for the candidate. And as someone who worked for the BJP for 16 long years, I often heard our two top leaders, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani, say that there are only two parties in India in which there is inner party democracy. That is the BJP and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M).


Where is the inner party democracy in the BJP now? The BJP is also justifying all these happenings by arguing that people vote for Mr. Modi and not for the party and even less for the candidate. This is a severe threat to the structure of the party system that is at the base of democracy in India. Personality-based politics has replaced party politics. We are moving towards one-man rule. In Hindi, there is a saying that translates into: I am only the leader and there cannot be, there is not, and there must not be a second leader. Is this good for Indian democracy? It’s a matter to be very seriously debated by the political establishment and also by the people. Because when the lights dim inside political parties, lights will also dim for democracy in the country. And that’s precisely what is happening. We are seeing democratic institutions come under attack one by one, including the Supreme Court. So, it’s not just a matter of a Chief Minister being replaced by another Chief Minister. This is all part of a much larger malaise that is spreading in India’s polity and society.

The BJP keeps attacking the Congress by calling it a family enterprise. Only a person with a certain surname can become the party president, it says, while the BJP prides itself on its internal democracy. Do you think that the party can claim the same legacy with the changes in its style of functioning now?

Harish Khare: That was a good propaganda point for the BJP. There is a certain relevance as well as far as the Congress is concerned. But power within the BJP has always also been concentrated among a handful of people even though the party has been careful and wise in giving the impression of having a collective leadership. The party has had very nameless people as party presidents but that doesn’t mean that they exercised power. Power was exercised by Vajpayee, Mr. Advani and [Murli Manohar] Joshi. These three people ran the party. But again, there was a certain subtlety to it and a certain pretence was maintained that there is a party president who should be deferred to.

Sudheendra Kulkarni: I won’t say that there was 100% collective leadership even when the party was led by Vajpayee and Mr. Advani, but most certainly there was a far higher degree of internal democracy, internal consultation and consultation between the Central leadership and the State leadership then. Now, there is nothing of the kind — either at the State level or at the Central level.

The party is entirely led by two people. And this is why people inside the BJP should really worry about the post-Modi era. What will happen to this party? Nobody is permanent and once the leadership of Modi is no longer there, I am afraid the BJP will face very swift, serious disintegration. This is something that the BJP should really worry about. One of the reasons the Congress got so marginalised was because it promoted and practised high command culture. It could replace Chief Ministers of even major States without any regard for the people’s aspirations.

I come from Bombay. On Marine Drive, there used to be a very witty billboard, run by Nana Chudasama [former Mumbai Sheriff]. When A.R. Antulay was replaced by Babasaheb Bhosale and later, after Shankarrao Chavan became Chief Minister, he [Chudasama] put up a billboard that said the Congress high command determines who the Chief Minister of Maharashtra should be in alphabetical order: A, B and then C (Antulay, Bhosale, Chavan). That is how ridiculous it had become, and this kind of high command culture weakened the Congress. The BJP is going to suffer the same fate in the years to come. We are seeing some very serious signs of authoritarianism and it will only get worse unless the democratic forces in the country come together and work for a real, decisive change in 2024.

Sudheendra Kulkarni is a political commentator; Harish Khare is senior journalist and former Editor of The Tribune

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Printable version | Oct 27, 2021 4:59:51 PM |

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