By Harihar Swarup
Among the many unique phrases in Indian politics, a particularly widely used one is “High Command” (HC) or “Aala Kaman”, meaning individual(s) at the apex of a political party. It’s a term that originated with Indira Gandhi, the famously dictatorial Congress chief, who sacked state chief ministers a staggering 50 times in her prime ministerial tenure. Almost four decades after Indira, this HC model dominates not just in Congress and BJP, but across parties.
But events in Gujarat and Punjab last week show stark differences in the contemporary HCs of BJP and Congress. The power of HC emanates directly from its ability to win elections. If the leader is a vote-catcher, whatever his or her ideology, the party falls in line, dissent is quelled and the flock sticks together.
If HC can’t win the election, the party scatters into myriad mutually competitive local losses, but ironically more democratic freedom becomes available, parties without strong HC become less successful at winning elections but are more democratic because the line between decisive and dictatorial leadership is very thin.
In Gujarat, the BJP HC sacked the entire cabinet including the CM and there were only few murmurs. The transfer of power passed off almost without demur because the leadership was able to impose it’s writ, thanks to the authority conferred by two big Lok Sabha wins.
BJP has borrowed from Indira model in running the party as a tight ship, BJP MLAs practically have no voice and CM’S enjoy their tenure at the pleasure of HC CMs are faceless proxies of the national leadership. Even RSS struggles to exercise its Veto power. This is the Indira Gandhi playbook.
In Congress by contrast, where Indira’s grandchildren have yet to prove they can win elections, the ousted PM Amarinder Singh publicly and angrily declared he had been humiliated and described his rival Navjot Singh Sidhu as an” incompetent” and an “anti-National”. The indecisive Congress HC dithered for months over Amarinder, had no clear succession plan and out of the blue even ordered the CM ship to Ambika Soni, before finally settling for Charanjit Singh Channi, the first Dalit Sikh face in Punjab. Compared to the surgical precision of the BJP HC’s actions in Gujarat, there was a sense of adhocism in the Punjab Saga.
Yet in the Congress, because the Delhi leadership has weakened drastically, CMs across states have come into their own. Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan can refuse to accommodate party rival Sachin pilot’s supporters and Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattisgarh can refuse to step down in spite of there being an apparent ‘promise ‘of rotational leadership.
In BJP by contrast only two CM’s posses’ identities distinct from HC Yogi Adityanath and Himanta Biswa Sharma in UP and Assam. The UP CM’s image as Hindutva strongmen could be further consolidated if he wins big in forthcoming assembly polls .Biswa Sharma is vital for BJP as the party is in an expansionist mode across the northeast and needs grassroots chieftains.
In Congress, MLAs wanted the octogenarian veteran Amarinder Singh out. While in Gujarat MLA’S were consulted before the purge of state government, in Punjab, the legislators in many ways forced the leadership hand.
It’s ironic that BJP has today embraced the Indira model, when it always a party of strong CM’s like Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan, Shivraj Singh Chouan in MP and Kalyan Singh in UP who held full sway during the leadership of AB Vajpayee and L K Advani generally functioned as firsts among equals
For example, in 1995, Gujarat’s prominent leader Shankersinh Vaghela staged a rebellion and threatened to leave BJP with 47 MLA’s. Vajpayee managed a reconciliation through persuasion and recourse to emotion. In 2004 firebrand leader Uma Bharti stormed out of a party meeting while Kalyan Singh in the 1990’s built his own support base in UP.
Ironically, Congress today resembles the older BJP when state leaders could openly defy the national leadership.
In smaller parties, such defiance is impossible. Arvind Kejriwal and Mamata Banerjee are supreme leaders in their parties Even in Kerala left, CM Pinarayi Vijayan sacked his entire cabinet after his 2021, the new 21-member Kerala government being almost entirely made up of new faces.
Importantly, as BJP adopts the Indira model, the governing party would also do well to reflect on what Indira did to Congress. It was she who was singlehandedly sowed the seeds of steady disintegration of the grand old party. Will the “old” Congress of yesterday become the new “BJP” of tomorrow? (IPA Service)