The growing high command culture: A challenge for inner-party democracy in India – Observer Research Foundation
The balance between keeping party unity while allowing state leaders autonomy has proven to be a tricky and difficult task
A series of leadership changes in multiple states involving the two main national parties— Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Indian National Congress (INC)—continues to dominate national headlines. Over the past few months, the BJP has changed at least three sitting chief ministers in Uttarakhand, Gujarat, and Karnataka before the end of their tenures. The Congress has been in the news recently as its veteran and most popular leader, Amarinder Singh in Punjab, had to step down and was replaced by the first Dalit Sikh Chief Minister, Charanjit Singh Channi. The INC faces similar challenges of leadership transition in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, where the issues are snowballing into a major crisis. At the root of these challenges is the ‘high command’ culture, in which the topmost national leadership of the political parties tightly controls the lower echelons, eroding the autonomy of the state units.
The inception of the high command culture can be traced back to the early 1970s, after the Congress split in 1969 and Mrs Indira Gandhi’s resounding victory in the 1971 national elections, when the INC came under the strict control of the Gandhi family and continues to remain so till date. As per this, the high command singlehandedly calls the shots regarding all major appointments in the Congress-ruled states and in all of its state units. The BJP, which was earlier known to practise some form of inner-party democracy along with the left parties, is now under the complete control of its charismatic leader, PM Modi and its political strategist, Home Minister Amit Shah. Since their national political consolidation in 2014, they have replicated the high command culture in the party by choosing and discarding chief ministers in most BJP-ruled states at will. Such outright dominance by the highest leadership over the lower echelons of the party is also seen in other major regional parties in the country.
The inception of the high command culture can be traced back to the early 1970s, after the Congress split in 1969 and Mrs Indira Gandhi’s resounding victory in the 1971 national elections, when the INC came under the strict control of the Gandhi family and continues to remain so till date.
As state politics in a diverse polity like India is marked by a high level of internecine conflicts amongst various factions representing a plethora of interests along with generational rifts and power tussles between the local political elite, a certain degree of hierarchical control of the national leadership is indispensable to keep the party united at the state levels.
However, the high command culture which has now turned into a sine qua non of Indian politics, often gravely supresses the autonomy of the state-level party units of the national parties, which largely function at the whims of the national party leadership. The party high command has a disproportionately larger discretion in the selection of the chief minister once the national party captures power in the state, with the state legislators having little or no say in this regard. This practice denigrates the constitutional mandate that empowers the majority party legislators to choose their leader as the chief minister of the state.
Both national parties are known to depute central observers as the high command’s emissaries to the concerned states where they ‘consult’ the state leaders and legislators, but the final decision regarding the appointment of chief ministers are left to the national leadership. In recent instances, the BJP legislative party in Karnataka and Congress legislative party of Punjab, passed a resolution mandating the BJP high command, PM Modi and Amit Shah and the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi respectively to take the final call on selecting the next chief ministers of the respective states. Similarly, the high commands are also found to be directly influencing the cabinet formation in states and state governments’ functioning from the national capital, eroding the autonomy of the CMs and state leadership. Even the head of the parties’ state units and other officials are directly nominated by the high command rather than through the party’s internal elections.
The party high command has a disproportionately larger discretion in the selection of the chief minister once the national party captures power in the state, with the state legislators having little or no say in this regard.
Such a tight grip of the party’s national leadership over the states can be attributed to two factors. First, history shows how powerful national leaders have been wary of the rise of assertive state leaders with a strong mass base. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Congress under Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi witnessed the incessant replacement of recalcitrant and ambitious state chief minsters with ones who are preferably political lightweights and assumingly loyal to the high command. BJP, presently under its powerful leaders PM Modi and Home Minister Shah, saw a similar pattern in the appointment of nominated CMs who enjoyed the confidence of the national leadership in most BJP-ruled states, with exceptions like Shivraj Singh Chouhan in MP, Yogi Aditya Nath in Uttar Pradesh, and Hemant Biswa Sharma in Assam—who all still enjoy some clout of their own.
Such a tendency in both national parties seems to emanate from the insecurity of the political leadership regarding facing political challenges from a popular regional leader of their party. So, having low profile nominated leaders in states and frequent leadership change clips the wings of ambitious leaders in the states. This maintaining of status quo or changing of guard in the states are sometimes done in the name of prioritising experience over young blood as in case of the Congress high command’s choice of Ashok Gehlot over Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan or in the garb of bringing a “fresh face” as done by BJP in Gujarat and Karnataka.
The high commands decisively control the party’s finances including resources emanating from the states so that the national leadership always has an upper hand in regulating and distributing these scarce resources according to its discretion.
The second, and the most critical, factor shaping the high command culture is the centralisation of party finances. The high commands decisively control the party’s finances including resources emanating from the states so that the national leadership always has an upper hand in regulating and distributing these scarce resources according to its discretion. Given that the candidates desperately need funds to fight elections, even more so as Indian elections are getting more expensive than ever before, this further reinforces the dominance of the high command.
However, the high command’s control over the state leadership depends both on the popularity and power of the national leadership as well as the interests of the state leaders. It is seen that when the national party’s electoral prospects look good, riding on the popular appeal of the national leaders, the state leaders find reason to capitulate before the high command. The national leadership, when electorally powerful, accommodates the demands of dissenting factions within the state units by distribution of various kinds of political patronage. Hence, the Congress in its heyday and BJP is its present dominant position, has been better equipped to exert control over its state leaders.
The story of a majority of regional party formation has been about the exit of disgruntled mass-based regional leaders from the Congress due to differences with the high command, which led them to float their own parties, with many tasting phenomenal political successes.
As the Congress’s present situation and also in the near past indicates, a politically weaker national leadership finds it difficult to control the various factions of its state units resulting in the exit of ambitious regional leaders ranging from Mamata Banerjee, Sharad Pawar, Jagan Mohan Reddy to Hemant Biswa Sharma—who felt that their prospects looked better outside the clutches of the party’s high command. In fact, the story of a majority of regional party formation has been about the exit of disgruntled mass-based regional leaders from the Congress due to differences with the high command, which led them to float their own parties, with many tasting phenomenal political successes.
India, as a federal polity with multi-layered diversity, needs a decentralised political sphere in the states that can evolve within its own localised political idiosyncrasies in a true spirit of inner-party federalism, rather than direct centralised control of Delhi-based national leadership. But the deeply entrenched high command culture within the national parties not only damages its own political prospects in many states by losing talented mass-based leaders due to their own political insecurity and efforts to stem political dissent, but seriously erodes the prospects of inner-party federalism on which political decentralisation in a diverse multi-party democracy depends. Maintaining a balance between keeping the party united and respecting the autonomy of state leaders is the challenge that national parties can only manage by democratising its internal functioning which will be a difficult but worthwhile endeavour.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).
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Ambar Kumar Ghosh is a Junior Fellow under the Political Reforms and Governance Initiative at ORF Kolkata. His primary areas of research interest include studying Indian democracy and its institutions, federalism, political leadership, citizenship and migration studies.
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