Despite the tectonic shifts over the past six years, India’s political landscape remains mostly bipolar. On one end is the cadre-based ideological Bharatiya Janata Party. On the other is a party of personality, the Congress.
Since 2014, the BJP has become dominant. Its principal vote catcher is Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while the central leadership is dominated by Amit Shah, the former party president who is now the home minister.
The BJP’s reliance on its top leadership to win elections is similar to the strategy used by the Congress during the Indira Gandhi era in the 1970s and the Rajiv Gandhi period in the 1980s.
Given that the BJP has been a cadre-based party since its inception, its willingness to adopt a “high command culture” revolving around a single leader reflects the benefits it has repeated from this change of electoral strategy.
Centralisation of decision making
High command culture can be loosely described as a system where a single leader or a select few take all political and administrative decisions. It undermines democratic decision making within a party and is a term that has so far been used to describe the functioning of the Congress party’s mode of operation.
High command culture took root in the Congress after it split in 1969 and Indira Gandhi became its face. It has continued in the Congress for half a century. But once the ability of the top leadership to garner votes for its party started to fade, this became a problem. This proved to be a significant challenge for the Congress after the 2014 election, as the party did not have a local leadership that could attract votes for its candidates.
Although both the BJP and Congress now seem to follow similar high command cultures, there is significant difference when it comes to developing leadership capabilities in the states.
When the Congress central leadership was under Indira Gandhi (and later her sons Sanjay and Rajiv) , state leadership positions changed frequently. For instance, in the periods 1971-1977 and 1980-1989, the party changed its chief minister in Uttar Pradesh nine times. During those periods of Congress rule, Maharashtra had a similar number of chief ministers. In the same period, similar patterns played out in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Bihar.
In contrast, BJP has not changed its state chief ministers after their appointments and the central leadership has stood by its state leadership. The only exceptions are Gujarat and Goa. In 2016, Vijay Rupani was made chief minister of Gujarat after Anandiben Patel resigned at the age of 75, the self-imposed retirement age in the party. In 2019, Pramod Sawant became chief minister of Goa after the death of Manohar Parikkar.
Since 2014, BJP chief ministers have completed their tenure even in states where the record of chief ministers completing their terms is not impressive. For instance, in Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis in 2019 became the first chief minister after Vasant Rao Naik to complete his tenure. Even as he faced resistance from the BJP’s ally in power, the central leadership stood by him.
In 2019, Raghubar Das completed his first stint in the politically unstable state of Jharkhand despite dissatisfaction among the party cadre. Similarly, in 2019 Manohar Lal Khattar finished his first term as chief minister in Haryana. The state used to be so politically unstable and so famous for defections that the popular joke about defectors – “Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram” – was coined there.
Stable terms for chief ministers are crucial not only to ensure policy continuity and quality of governance but are equally essential for leadership to be developed at the state level. In the Congress, Rajiv Gandhi began to understand this very late. Still, his decision to support younger leaders of that time like Rajashekhar Reddy in Andhra Pradesh and others in various states helped the party in later years too.
The BJP has learnt this lesson from Congress, which is they the Congressisation of the BJP is different.
In addition to ensuring continuity of its chief ministers, the BJP has continued to promote grass-root workers to become leaders. Though the power is centralised, none of the prominent state leaders is a dynast, unlike in theCongress. In fact, the Congress promotes dynasts at the state level too. As a consequence, there no incentive for first-generation hardworking politicians to continue in the party. This is what prompted Mamta Banerjee in West Bengal to leave the Congress and set up the Trinamool Congress in 1997.
The focus of the BJP’s high command on leadership development will help the organisation nurture a bench strength of competent climbers and eventually motivate new people to join the party. This is what makes the Congressised BJP more successful than the party with which it now shares high command culture.
Rishi Kishore is a political analyst. His areas of interest are political parties, elections, institutions and the political economy of coal.