‘High Command’ comes to BJP

Dominant Duo: Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have brought a much-hated Congress trait to the BJP

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On a hot March afternoon in 2017, political circles in Delhi and Lucknow were abuzz about the next Uttar Pradesh chief minister. The BJP had won an unprecedented majority in the northern state and speculation was rife whether the BJP would project a progressive face in Manoj Sinha, a Union minister then, or pick someone from among the newly elected legislators. The party had contested the elections under the leadership of Keshav Prasad Maurya, a prominent OBC leader and Lok Sabha member at the time.

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A larger picture has just begun to unfold in the BJP

Speculation was also rife in Delhi that the BJP may pick an experienced hand and send the then Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh to Uttar Pradesh as chief minister. However, at the BJP legislative party meeting on May 18, 2017, the MLAs were told the central leadership had chosen Yogi Adityanath, then a Lok Sabha MP, to be the chief minister.

“Modi ji and I decided to make him the chief minister. He is work-oriented and has made up for his lack of experience with his work ethic,” BJP president Amit Shah would say later about how Yogi came to be the surprise choice.

Adityanath’s appointment was not the only surprise the Modi-Shah duo have sprung. In 2014, Modi had chosen Manohar Lal Khattar, a Punjabi, as the chief minister of Haryana and Raghubar Das as chief minister of Jharkhand over more established names. In Maharashtra, though Devendra Fadnavis was not declared as the party’s chief ministerial candidate during the 2014 Assembly polls, he was already seen as a favourite of Modi and so it was no surprise that he made the cut over well-entrenched seniors such as Eknath Khadse and Chandrakant Patil, let alone Nitin Gadkari.

The trend of the Modi-Shah duo picking the party’s chief ministers in various states continued when it came to the selection of Jairam Thakur (Himachal Pradesh) and Trivendra Singh Rawat (Uttarakhand). The 75-year retirement age fixed by the BJP took care of veterans like B C Khanduri and B S Koshiyari in Uttarakhand and Shanta Kumar in Himachal Pradesh. P K Dhumal, who proved to be a tough nut to crack, was declared the chief ministerial candidate but failed to ensure his own victory, thus removing himself from the race.

Almost as soon as the 2014 Lok Sabha election results were out, it became clear who the new, undisputed masters of the BJP, which once prided in being a ‘party with a difference’ and where the opinion of the cadres mattered, were. And they made sure that the message was spread and reinforced in state after state that has gone to Assembly polls since and elected BJP governments.

Under the ‘old BJP’ of Atal Behari Vajpayee and L K Advani, strong chief ministers rose from the ranks of the BJP and RSS and were allowed by the central leadership to grow from strength to strength. That set included the likes of Shivraj Singh Chauhan (Madhya Pradesh), Raman Singh (Chhattisgarh) and Modi himself, who all went on to become three-term chief ministers with the party’s central leadership making nary a move to “keep them in check,” the way Congress under Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi used to.

Post-2014, though, in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, chief ministers Vasundhara Raje and Chouhan, began to feel the heat from Modi and Shah when they refused to toe the central leadership’s line.

In classic Indira Gandhi-style, these state leaders, and other well-entrenched ones, who had even a distant chance of emerging as challengers, would be cut down to size. Thus, Chauhan would find his detractor Rakesh Singh rising in his backyard, Raje would find Gajendra Singh Shekhawat being promoted. The BJP was on its way to become the new Congress, complete with the ‘high command’ culture that it once detested.

The Modi-Shah duo made a tactical exception in Karnataka, allowing B S Yediyurappa a free run in the 2018 Assembly elections and even in the toppling of the H D Kumaraswamy government a year later, only to tighten the grip on the septuagenarian leader just as he got closer to the chief minister’s chair.

Shah has since dictated the whole process of government formation to the last detail, including surrounding Yediyurappa with three handpicked deputy chief ministers. Yediyurappa resisted, but he was reportedly told that if he did not fall in line, the party would choose to go in for snap polls.

This is, of course, not the first time that a strong personality has dominated the political scene in the country. Despite India being a parliamentary democracy, it is personalities that have dominated politics since Independence – from Jawaharlal Nehru to Indira Gandhi and later Rajiv Gandhi, the true accidental prime minister who won a record mandate in 1985.

The Congress’ ‘high command’ culture did not take root during Nehru’s time despite the strong and widely accepted desire to unify the nation and Nehru’s own tendency towards a unitary state and his being both prime minister and Congress president continuously from 1951 to 1959. Neither did it happen during Lal Bahdur Shastri’s brief tenure as prime minister.

It first took root during Indira Gandhi’s tenure as prime minister and her relentless struggles against the ‘Syndicate’ that sought to control her. Indira’s writ ran large in the party after she succeeded in sidelining the syndicate and carving out her own Congress (I). She commanded utmost loyalty among her followers and could appoint, and dethrone, chief ministers and state unit chiefs as she wished.

She enjoyed immense power as prime minister and the president of the Congress party between 1978 and 1984. It was this power that allowed her to appoint A R Antulay as Maharashtra CM, completely disregarding the predominantly Maratha leadership in the state. Antulay was an excellent administrator but was soon embroiled in corruption charges levelled against him by a Congress lobby uncomfortable with a Muslim chief minister.

The Modi-Shah duo enjoy similar powers as they work in tandem, with an iron grip over the party across the country. In true Indira-style, Modi, too, has moved to break dominant caste politics in states by appointing a Brahmin (Fadnavis) as chief minister in Maratha-dominated Maharashtra, a Punjabi migrant (Khattar) as CM in Jat-dominated Haryana, an OBC (Das) in tribal dominated Jharkhand. It is their working in unison – Modi, the vote catcher, and Shah, the organiser – that gives them such power.

Somewhat similar powers were enjoyed by P V Narasimha Rao during his tenure as prime minister and Congress president between 1991-96, and Sonia Gandhi as the all-powerful party president who appointed Manmohan Singh, a career bureaucrat, as the prime minister. So large was Sonia’s writ that she even had her own set of advisers in the National Advisory Council, derisively called the ‘super cabinet’, to guide the UPA government.

However, this accumulation of power in an individual – mostly from the Nehru-Gandhi family – also spawned a culture of sycophancy that led to the downfall of the Congress. It resulted in a growing disconnect between the Congress leadership and the masses that led to the disastrous turn in its fortunes since 2014.

A similar culture of sycophancy has taken root root in the BJP, with leaders falling over one another in singing paeans to Modi and Shah -- a habit that’s on display even on the floor of Parliament, where elected members are expected to question the government of the day. The saving grace is that the duo, having come up from the ranks themselves, still have their ears to the ground so far and are able to make timely amends when things don’t quite go their way – as they did in the wake of the 2018 Assembly elections in the Hindi heartland states. How long they will be able to do so as the feedback mechanisms fray, inevitably as their power rises, only time will tell.

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