India's top political parties need to address power imbalances within

The BJP and Congress will do themselves and the country's politics a world of good by restoring inner-party democracy

A mural of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in Chennai. EPA
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The term “high-command culture” might be peculiar to most people around the world, but it is a regular staple in the jargon of Indian politics. Broadly speaking, it refers to any system in which those holding the highest offices within an organisation, along with their coterie of advisers, make all the decisions on its behalf.

In India’s large, multiparty democratic system of governance, high-command culture has been a serious challenge for decades. Despite the system as a whole being democratic, parties themselves form their positions and strategies through other means. Much of the work is done through the consensus of leaders rather than members, sometimes aided by rigorous polling – whether it is appointing office bearers, building organisations, planning and implementing election strategies, preparing manifestos, or even tinkering with party ideology.

Most Indian political parties didn’t start off this way. But whatever democratic norms existed were gradually dispensed with, often coinciding with the rise of a dynasty or a charismatic leader. In India, a vast number of mainstream parties are led by powerful families; for example, the Indian National Congress – the party that led the freedom movement – is essentially a family firm run by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. The Bharatiya Janata Party, meanwhile, is led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi whose popularity has given him and his aides the power to reshape the party.

High-command culture’s limitations resurfaced in a very public way last weekend, when the BJP experienced them first-hand in the Karnataka state assembly election. The party had based its election strategy on the charisma of one leader, and it was roundly defeated by Congress as a result. Unable to fight the election on locally relevant matters, such as corruption and unemployment, the BJP focused on wedge issues. Instead of banking on local and regional leaders during the campaign, notably former chief minister BS Yediyurappa, there was an overreliance on Mr Modi and other leaders from New Delhi. Congress, on the other hand, ran a smart campaign with a manifesto of pledges targeting some of the most afflicted sections of Karnataka’s diverse and complex polity. The Gandhi family let two of the party’s strongest leaders from the state, Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar, spearhead the campaign. It made all the difference.

In the BJP, the high command is strong and regional leaders are relatively weak, while in Congress it’s the opposite

Mr Yediyurappa, a regional satrap with a loyal and sizeable vote bank of his own, might have made it a closer contest had he been allowed to lead the BJP campaign. Instead, he is one of several leaders in the party who appears to have been sidelined for mostly political reasons. The party that once prided itself for having a large stable of powerful regional leaders – including Mr Modi himself, when he was chief minister of Gujarat state – has gone in a distinctly different direction.

The party’s centralising instincts in recent years have coincided with the gradual replacement of established leaders with newer, less experienced ones who have struggled to adequately fill their shoes. Karnataka is one of several case studies illustrating this trend, with the rise of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma being exceptions to the rule.

Generational change takes time of course, but surely the BJP high command should be giving its state units greater sway in choosing their leaders. And while a lack of inner-party democracy predates the Modi era – all of the six party presidents since 2002 have been handpicked by consensus – at least Congress can say it held an albeit rare election to pick its current president.

It is easy to see why the BJP relies so heavily on Mr Modi. He has led the party to two thumping general election victories, and on a handful of occasions helped his colleagues win state elections in very difficult circumstances. But the issue is whether the BJP has become a victim of its tallest leader’s success. How long can it hang on to his coattails – and when he eventually retires, who will be good enough to replace him? Congress’s own example should be a cautionary tale.

The so-called grand old party is facing a slightly different problem today: it is run by a dynasty that remains hugely popular across the country but is much less effective as a vote catcher than it used to be. Gone are the days, for example, when former prime minister Indira Gandhi was so powerful she could win even a “lamppost election” (if Congress fielded a lamppost in a state election, the legend goes, the lamppost would win, for the vote would be cast in Mrs Gandhi’s name).

The current generation’s stubborn perch at the apex of the party, partly an outcome of name recall and partly its ability to raise funds for it, has meant that few other leaders today are capable of helming Congress, or are given the opportunity to do so. On the flipside, their comparative electoral weakness over the past 25 years has resulted in a number of rebellions across state units.

Today, state governments in Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, among others, are run by regional party leaders who were once among Congress’s most powerful regional satraps before they became disillusioned with the Gandhis and their high-command culture. Several others, meanwhile, have joined the BJP over the years and gone on to secure plum positions in union and state cabinets.

Conversely, the family's relative weakness has given it less bandwidth to resolve bitter infighting in the state units of Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, where Congress is in power, just months before elections are due. It must be said, however, that they have so far handled the dilemma of who should become chief minister of Karnataka – Mr Siddaramaiah or Mr Shivakumar – with the care it deserves.

Nonetheless, there is a power imbalance in two of India’s largest parties: in the BJP, the high command is strong and regional leaders are relatively weak, while in Congress, which still has strong regional leaders, it’s the opposite. This imbalance is the unfortunate outcome of a lack of inner-party democracy and can be resolved by reviving the institutions that were integral to these organisations at the foundational level. Top-heavy regional parties should take note, too.

Failing to do so will take away any incentive millions of young and aspirational citizens have to join politics. Moreover, the power imbalances within parties could, over the longer term, affect governance and undermine the very idea of federalism. India is a union of states, after all, with the right balance between the union and the states being of vital importance.

Published: May 16, 2023, 3:30 PM