OPINION

The supremo culture in Indian polity

The ongoing controversy in the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), between the pro-Kejriwal faction and other party leaders, over organisational matters raises two important questions that concern most political parties in India. The first — why do political parties in India have a tendency to centralise? And the second — why do leaders of these parties project themselves as “supremo,” or the ultimate authority?

This “high command” culture is often attributed to political parties that are dynastic in nature. Parties like the Congress, the Shiv Sena, the Akali Dal, the Biju Janata Dal, the Telugu Desam Party, the Samajwadi Party, the YSR Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam are the usual suspects. However, centralisation of authority also extends to non-dynastic parties like the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) in Assam, the Trinamool Congress, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Bahujan Samaj Party. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Left parties — which occupy two ideological extremes in Indian politics — have remained an exception, to an extent, to this trend.

The organisational base

In our opinion, India’s political parties and their leaders have the propensity to centralise authority because most political parties do not have independent organisational bases, a large section of citizens depend upon India’s mai-baap state [nanny state] for their general well-being, and the nature of financing election campaigns in the country.

The organisational base of political parties in India often precedes their formal creation. While the BJP spun off the Jana Sangh with support from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Left was moulded by the unification of splintered communist movements in the early 20th century. These parties and their leaders are often kept in check by strong, cadre-based organisations. If a party has a strong organisation and allows other contenders an equal opportunity to reach to the top, then factional politics within the party would create independent bases of power and incentivise lobbying. This is true in the case of the BJP and the Left parties as they are rooted in strong civil society organisations. For example, in case of the BJP, the RSS and its affiliates act as a strong check on party leadership.

The AAP has severed its ties from the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement in the wake of its party formation. It now lacks an independent organisational base that could check the leader becoming the party — a phenomenon common to most political parties in India.

Even if it had retained its ties to the anti-corruption movement, the latter was just a movement without any structure or organisation. The AAP has been created from scratch on the back of general discontent with “politics as usual.” Currently, most leaders within the AAP have no independent political base. Their political careers are tied to the success of the party.

Those eyeing positions of power — either for enhancing their political career or for carrying out genuine political reform — align their interests with that of their leader and suppress any challenges to his authority. It is this internecine conflict that lies at the heart of the recent internal feud within the AAP, and, broadly, its centralised leadership structure.

Control over the state

Political parties in India have an incentive to centralise party organisation because the Indian state is the mai-baap . In a mai-baap state, the state is involved in everyday economic activity of most citizens — from running railways and building big industrial complexes to social sector programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), mid-day meals, etc. The state is the primary investor, creator and provider of most goods that citizens consume. The control over the state and its institutions help in crystallising the support base of a politician. The leader, especially if the party is in the government, is incentivised to restrict party colleagues — who are not part of the faction — from using the levers of this mai-baap state, as it would allow them to develop independent support bases and potentially challenge the authority of the leader. Other politicians — from the pro-leader faction — support this centralisation because their association with the leader protects them from challenges to their own positions within the party by others.

The recent fracas in the AAP reflects these dilemmas. There are those who want Arvind Kejriwal to remain the leader of the party and the Chief Minister. For many politicians in the AAP, and for Mr. Kejriwal, this makes sense as the AAP attempts to expand its electoral influence. It will use its control over the Delhi government to build the party. As it follows this path, the AAP will begin to look like all the other parties in India — a centralised party controlled by a leader accompanied by fellow politicians who need the leader to retain their position. The secondary leadership in the party also cannot allow dissent — especially challenges to the authority of the supremo.

Campaign financing

This centralisation is also helped by the opaque campaign finance regime of parties in India, which is closely tied to the mai-baap state and its institutions. Campaign finance in India is often undisclosed, collected centrally, and distributed by the central party office. While the central leadership handles the bulk of the campaign spending, political parties also allocate tickets to candidates with a substantial amount of wealth and a criminal background so they could finance their own elections. Nevertheless, all politicians, especially after winning elections, contribute greatly to a party’s election coffers by collecting commissions from businessmen and contractors by providing them access, such as getting them permits, licences, contracts, etc., to the mai-baap state.

The AAP is indeed one of the few political parties that talks about and even experimenting with methods of open campaign finance. We will have to wait and see how politicians from the AAP, with a key to this mai-baap state, deal with it in the coming months, but one thing is for sure — a lot of candidates contesting on AAP tickets rely on the central party office for their funds. This is true for other parties as well. Thus, the control-command structure of financing election campaigns creates incentives for leaders to centralise party organisations.

Party fragmentation

The tendency of party centralisation also explains why India has such a high rate of party fragmentation — more and more parties competing in the next election — and electoral volatility — the net change in the vote share of a party from one election to the next. When one leader frequently makes the decisions regarding appointments to positions of power within a party, then others within the party become unsure of their career paths. Ambitious politicians in such a scenario are likely to desert their parent party and join another party to enhance career prospects. Lateral entry to a similar position in another party is however not always easy. Thus, many politicians find it easier to form a new party to contest elections. In this way, party centralisation leads to more and more parties entering the electoral market place and greater vote swings between two elections.

The leaders of many political parties in India are able to preserve their political power through excessive centralisation within their parties. However, this often comes at a price. The Congress’s shortage of popular, home-grown leaders at the State level can be attributed at least partly to its practice of clipping the wings of leaders having strong political support. In the coming months, Mr. Kejriwal’s ability to balance his desire to preserve control along with his ambition to expand the party by giving independent voices will be the key to the AAP’s future success.

(The writers are with Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, U.S.)



The control-command structure of financing election campaigns creates incentives for leaders to centralise party organisations.





Political parties and their leaders have the propensity to centralise authority because most parties do not have independent organisational bases, a large section of citizens depend upon India’s mai-baap state for their general well-being, and the nature of financing election campaigns in the country



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