Is the BJP high command giving the green light to the United States?
There seems to be anti-functioning in the states as well as a concentration of power in New Delhi
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) changed five chief ministers in four states this year. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat is the latest to experience a change of guard. Are these changes a sign of opposition to power in these states or of a concentration of power in the hands of the central leadership? Harish Kharé and Sudheendra Kulkarni discuss it in a discussion moderated by Sandeep Phukan. Edited excerpts:
By changing the head of ministers before the end of their mandate, does the BJP admit that there is anti-functioning? Or is this an adoption of the high command culture that Congress was once known for?
Harish Kharé: I am not very comfortable with this concept of anti-office. Anti-investiture is a word made respectable by LK Advani after the Rajnath Singh government was removed from office in Uttar Pradesh in 2002. The concept implies that no matter how well a government performs; that after four-five years, negativity will build up and voters will vote against the government. But the file at the moment denies this. We have this extraordinary phenomenon of Naveen Patnaik [Chief Minister of Odisha] to rule the state for 20 years without any song or dance, without any extravagant claim to national or world glory. I mean, a government gets rejected because the ruling party is unable to make politics as smart as it should and those in opposition do a better job of galvanizing voters. Likewise, the ruling party is doing well if it mobilizes resources well, and the BJP has been doing it in Gujarat for 20 years. So where is the question of the anti-office? As far as I’m concerned, there is nothing anti-titular in Gujarat. The questions that need to be analyzed in detail are whether central management wants [be in] control or how much he can and should control.
Sudheendra Kulkarni: What this shows is that at a time when the BJP accuses Congress of having a culture of high command, where whatever fatwa issued by the high command in New Delhi is unmistakably followed by the satraps. in the United States, the same is now happening in the BJP. It’s not just the high command culture, it’s the super high command culture that has taken hold at BJP.
There was a time when the BJP spoke of a “Congress-mukt Bharat” [Congress-free India]. What we are seeing is the “Congress” of BJP units and democratically elected governments in various states. So there is both an anti-office and, more importantly, a concentration of power in New Delhi that is at work. Why do I say that the anti-office is at work? Look at Gujarat: After Narendra Modi stopped being Chief Minister of Gujarat and traveled to Delhi to become Prime Minister, his trusted colleague Anandiben Patel became the Chief Minister. But before the 2017 Assembly elections, she was replaced because there was an anti-titular ministerial leader, not anti-titular against the BJP. The party felt it may not be able to return to power with the same person in charge. The same pattern is repeating itself now. Elections are scheduled in Gujarat in 2022 and Vijay Rupani has been replaced. There was no confidence in the BJP that it could return to power in 2022 with Mr Rupani as chief minister and so he brought in Bhupendra Patel, a total person. He is a first-time MP, unknown outside Ahmedabad, and hardly a leader of Gujarat. But because the high command or super high command wanted to control Gujarat and wanted to continue ruling Gujarat from New Delhi, they installed a person who is nobody but who is accountable to the two top leaders of the BJP.
It is ironic that when Mr. Modi was the chief minister he was talking about Gujarat asmitus or self-pride. That is, “We will not let New Delhi dictate conditions to Gujarat. from Gujarat asmitus is supreme for us ”. It now blindly follows the dictates of New Delhi even if it emanates from the leadership of the same party. But this is yet another example of how the concentration of power in New Delhi is undermining state after state democracy.
The sole purpose of bringing Mr. Patel as Chief Minister now, with less than a year to go to 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 that this particular person is appointed chief minister is also that he is not a very popular person and therefore lends himself very easily to be dictated by New Delhi.
Is weak leadership in the United States the natural corollary of having a powerful and strong leader at the Center? It was the model of Congress at the time of Indira Gandhi. Many argue that it is the prime minister who gets votes anyway and that is why the central leadership has the moral authority to make changes as they see fit.
Harish Kharé: If we remove personalities, we are looking at how to govern a continental regime like ours. This is a fundamental question; in a way, we are trying to run a democratic empire. I have always believed in it. Except once, no political party obtained more than 50% of the vote. Those who come to power in the Center must find a way to rule this vast country.
Editorial | Patel at the helm: Changing of the guard in Gujarat
The Indian National Congress was at its best because it became a political instrument of the Indian state. The BJP is now facing the same structural problem. It rules the country and has over 300 seats in Lok Sabha. He must decide how much to control and how much initiative to leave to the States.
If we omit 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 main voter. The Prime Minister does not depend on allies of the state or other parties to come up with the numbers. Thus, the Prime Minister wants to control his state. This is fundamental given the political realities of life. So, in many ways, the BJP was hypocritical when it accused Congress; he no longer has the right to ride a moral horse by pretending that he has no high command culture. The culture of high command is integrated into the need to directly control and operate the policy of a continental regime like ours.
Sudheendra Kulkarni: This is precisely why the BJP criticized Congress. When Congress was led by Ms. Gandhi, there was a popular saying at the time that even if Congress put forward a pole as a candidate, that lifeless pole would be elected. People voted for Mrs Gandhi and not for the candidate. And as someone who has worked for the BJP for 16 long years, I have often heard our two main leaders, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani, say that there are only two parties in India that there are an internal democracy. It is the BJP and the Indian-Marxist Communist Party (CPI-M).
Where is the party’s internal democracy at BJP now? The BJP also justifies all of these events by arguing that people vote for Mr. Modi and not for the party let alone the candidate. This is a serious threat to the structure of the party system which is the basis of democracy in India. The politics of personality replaced the politics of parties. We are moving towards one man rule. In Hindi there is a saying which translates to: I am only the leader and there cannot be, there is not, and there must not be a second leader. Is it good for Indian democracy? This is a question that needs to be debated very seriously by the political establishment and also by the people. Because when the lights go out inside political parties, the lights will go out for democracy in the country as well. And that is precisely what is happening. We see democratic institutions being attacked one by one, including the Supreme Court. So it is not just a matter of replacing a chief minister with another chief minister. This is all part of a much larger malaise that is spreading in Indian society and politics.
The BJP continues to attack Congress for calling it a family business. Only someone with a certain last name can become party chairman, he says, while the BJP prides itself on its internal democracy. Do you think the party can claim the same legacy with the changes in the way it operates now?
Harish Kharé: It was a good propaganda point for the BJP. There is some relevance to Congress as well. But power within the BJP has always been concentrated among a handful of people, even though the party has been cautious and wise in giving the impression of having collective leadership. The party has had very anonymous people as party chairmen, but that doesn’t mean they wielded power. Power was exercised by Vajpayee, Mr. Advani and [Murli Manohar] Joshi. These three people were running the party. But again, there was a certain subtlety and a certain contention was maintained that there was a party president to defer 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 there was certainly a much higher degree of internal democracy, internal consultation and consultation between central management and state management. so. However, there is no such thing, neither at the state level nor at the central level.
The party is run entirely by two people. And that’s why people within BJP should really be worried about the post-Modi era. What will happen to this holiday? No one is permanent and once Modi’s leadership is gone I fear the BJP is facing a very rapid and severe disintegration. This is something the BJP should really be worried about. One of the reasons Congress was so marginalized was that it promoted and practiced the culture of high command. He could replace the chief ministers even of major states without any regard for the aspirations of the people.
I am from Bombay. On Marine Drive there was a very spiritual billboard, run by Nana Chudasama [former Mumbai Sheriff]. When AR Antulay was replaced by Babasaheb Bhosale and later, after Shankarrao Chavan became Chief Minister, he [Chudasama] put up a sign indicating that the Congressional High Command determines who should be the Chief Minister of Maharashtra in alphabetical order: A, B then C (Antulay, Bhosale, Chavan). That’s how ridiculous it got, and that kind of high command culture weakened Congress. The BJP will suffer the same fate in the years to come. We are seeing very serious signs of authoritarianism and it will only get worse unless the democratic forces of the country unite and work for real and decisive change in 2024.
Sudheendra Kulkarni is a political commentator; Harish Khare is a senior journalist and former editor-in-chief of The gallery