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The Big Story: Command and control

Last week, the national spotlight turned towards West Bengal and the sight of Union Home Minister Amit Shah welcoming a host of Trinamool Congress leaders into his party, a political tactic that was once derided but is now usually taken as a sign of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s success in regions where it has no significant leadership. But in Karnakata, a very different story was playing out.

There too, a top BJP leader was visiting, and the ensuing conversations were about how long the chief minister would stay in power. The only difference was that National Secretary Bhupendra Yadav was visiting unannounced. And the chief minister in question is from his own party, BS Yediyurappa.

“Yadav’s visit was kept secret and senior party functionaries had no clue,” one anonymous BJP member told the Times of India.

Arun Singh, who is in charge of Karnataka at the national level, said he had “no idea why Bhupendra Yadav visited”. He followed this up by saying, “As far as I know, there are no plans to replace BS Yediyurappa as of now.”

For a party that has frequently attacked its national opponents, the Congress, for nurturing a “High Command culture” that depends on the whims of just a few leaders at the top, the treatment of Yediyurappa over the last few months has been instructive.

A recent report by the Indian Express on Arun Singh’s visit to the state earlier this month offers a useful encapsulation:

“A three-day visit to Karnataka by Arun Singh, the new BJP in-charge for the state, over the weekend to review the status of the party and development under the BJP government has not provided Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa much clarity on his efforts to expand the cabinet.

Singh has reportedly told Yediyurappa to carry out the cabinet expansion in consultation with the party’s central leadership.

Last month, Yediyurappa visited Delhi to meet the BJP central leadership on the cabinet expansion issue, but was reportedly advised to consult the new party in-charge for the state.”

Yediyurappa went to Delhi to meet the central leadership and was told to speak to the party-in-charge. When the party-in-charge visited, Yediyurappa was told to speak to Delhi.

And it is not like he hasn’t tried. The Karnataka chief minister has announced on four occasions this year that he will be expanding his Cabinet to fill numerous vacant positions. Yet this expansion has yet to actually take place, in part because Yediyurappa has failed to get Delhi’s approval.

Narendra Modi with BS Yeddyurappa at a rally in Bengaluru in 2018. | Photo: IANS

Yediyurappa is an unusual BJP chief minister in the Narendra Modi era, in part because he was not handpicked by Delhi to run the state and instead has his own base. This makes him more like former Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, who also had rather frosty relations with the Delhi BJP leadership, than, say, Haryana Chief Minister ML Khattar, whose popularity is based on his loyalty to Modi.

Even Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath, who has rather unusually been built into a national figure by the party over the last few years, was not a state-wide leader before the 2017 election.

This means that Yediyurappa is not entirely beholden to Modi and Shah – or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Should he choose to, he could hurt the party’s chances in the only southern state where it has won power so far, as he demonstrated by splitting from it in the 2013 elections.

But it also means that many in the party are unhappy with him, at both the state and Central levels.

If the news reports are to be believed, this leads to unusual situations such as one where Karnataka Cabinet members are coached by the central leadership on how to blunt the chief minister’s efforts, as with Yediyurappa’s recent plan to include the Lingayat community in the Other Backward Classes category. This move would have a huge impact in the state and elsewhere.

From the New Indian Express:

“The BJP top central and state leadership went into a tizzy after coming to know that Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa’s was planning to grant the OBC tag to numerically and politically significant Lingayat community on Thursday. But they worked hard behind the scenes and pulled the strings at the very top to checkmate the chief minister.”

The idea of central leadership even needing to “checkmate” a chief minister from its own party – which an analysis in The Hindu interpreted as Yediyurappa’s attempt to convey to Delhi that he can operate independently – is rather unusual within the BJP system.

A somewhat similar situation appeared to play out in Tripura, a state that the BJP grabbed in 2018 after years of rule by Communist parties. Facing criticism from the state unit including public slogans demanding a change of leadership, Chief Minister Biplab Deb announced that he would hold a public meeting to reaffirm his mandate from the people of the state.

The central leadership then stepped in and told Deb to call off this meeting.

“Sources said the central leadership, although convinced about some issues raised by the MLAs [against Deb], does not want to replace the chief minister as it could set off similar demands in other state units where disgruntled MLAs have raised issues against the chief ministers. They said the party leadership is ‘annoyed’ with Deb’s Tuesday’s announcement – which was apparently not discussed with the central leadership – and added that it has ‘weakened’ the party structure in Tripura.”

Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb | Photo: PTI

These stories offer a glimpse of a lesser understood aspect of the way the BJP’s “High Command” functions in its current avatar as the dominant pole of Indian politics.

In the first few decades after Independence, federalist politics and state-Centre bargaining often took place within the Congress, rather than via inter-governmental institutions, because of the overwhelming hold the party had over most of the country.

This ought to be happening within the BJP too, though the way it plays out is much less understood, not least because in some ways the party is much more centralised than the early Congress years.

As Louise Tillin, director of the India Institute at the King’s College London, told us on a previous Friday Q&A,

“We’ve entered a period in which state elections can be fought without a BJP chief ministerial candidate and it’s Modi’s image that is dominant. Chief Ministers are parachuted in after an election outcome. And one wonders what bargaining power those chief ministers have when their appointment is really a gift of the Centre, and their election win occurs on Modi’s electoral coattails.

That takes us back to thinking about Indira Gandhi and her relationship with Chief Ministers in the 1970s and the 1980s, and the emergence of the first regional political parties that really challenged the Congress party. Leaders like NTR and others really grew out of the spaces that were opened up for political opposition by the top-down nature of the Congress organisation.”

As a challenger, including against its own coalition ally, the BJP has done remarkably well in state elections. And much of 2021 will be dominated by conversations about its fortunes in West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, states that have never seen a BJP government and are going to the polls next year.

But for those seeking to understand how the party actually views state-level governance, it is as important to track its response to leaders like Yediyurappa as well as its performance in states where it is the incumbent. Its record in these states has been poor so far.

Throw in the upheaval caused by the Citizenship Act Amendments and the 2021 Assam elections, where the BJP is the incumbent, may be as telling as the party’s fortunes in the three other states.

Flotsam and Jetsam

  • Between 2015 and 2019, India actually saw an increase in child undernutrition, reversing decades of gains, according to early data from the National Family Health Survey. “The share of stunted, wasted and underweight children has grown in the majority of states for which data have been made available.”
  • States are concerned about losing out on funds in the upcoming Budget, after reports that the Centre plans to cut down on centrally sponsored schemes so that New Dehi retains more fiscal space for itself.
  • United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to be India’s Republic Day chief guest, in the hope that the bilateral ties will get a boost in the post-Brexit era.
  • A Delhi court has acquitted 36 foreigners facing trial for allegedly violating Covid-19 guidelines while participating in an event held by the Tablighi Jamaat in the capital in March, which was then used by the government and the Indian media to blame the disease’s spread on Muslims.
  • Reliance Jio has complained to India’s telecom regulator that its competitors, Airtel and Vodafone, are using the ongoing farmer protest as a selling port to convince people in North Indian states to change their telecom operator. The complaint makes it clear how Reliance’s close identification with the current government and fears of “conglomerate capitalism” explain partly the anxieties underlying the farmer protest.

Can’t make this up

The government of India’s media outreach and propaganda wing, the Press Information Bureau, was already fishing in muddy waters when it decided to appropriate journalistic terminology and set up “PIB Fact Check”. The handle has frequently been used to spread unsubstantiated claims.

So this was bound to happen: PIB Fact Check called a Home Affairs ministry letter fake. A day later, a different section of the government tweeted out to say that PIB Fact Check’s claim was incorrect and that the letter was genuine. This means that the PIB Fact Check claim was fake news.

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