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Mainstream, VOL LX No 25, New Delhi, June 11, 2022

High Command culture and Democracy in India | P S Jayaramu

Saturday 11 June 2022


by P S Jayaramu

31st May, 2022

Since direct democracy is not possible to be practised, countries across the world have accepted indirect democracy, be it Parliamentary or Presidential system. The central feature of such a system lies in the importance attached to the role of political parties in the practice of democratic form of government. In India, after much deliberation in the Constituent Assembly, we accepted the Parliamentary system of Government. We have noticed, over the decades, the rise of political parties, both at the national and state level, in keeping with our linguistic and social diversities. However, what has happened over the years is the rise of high command culture in the operation of our political parties, which is in principle antithetical to the basic tenets of democracy.

In the Indian context, the high command culture was not so visible during the era of Jawaharlal Nehru who presided over the Union Government for nearly 18 years, in view of his personal committment to the values associated with the functioning of government as well as the Congress Party, though it cannot be denied that Nehru had his way when it came to policy decisions. It is well known that Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and Rajagopalachari resigned from his cabinet as a mark of protest against some of his vital decisions. But, it is also a fact that Nehru did not generally interfere in the functioning of the Party. The high command culture came to the surface in a very pronounced manner with the rise of Indira Gandhi as Prime minister, more so after the split in the Congress Party. She presided over the destinities of the government and party affairs in matters relating to the choice of persons as Chief ministers in the States and over the selection of candidates for Lok Sabha and state assembly elections. The disgruntled elements had to either accept her decisions or at best leave the party, but could not muster courage to press for reforms in the functioning of the Party. The high command grew in importance under her son Rajiv Gandhi too, after he got elected with a steam roller majority in 1984. He showed his authoritarian streak when he insulted N T Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh, which led to the rise of the Telugu Desam Party. Rajiv Gandhi also insulted Veerendra Patil, a highly respected chief minister in Karnataka, who had been elected with a good majority during one of his visits to the State, which, reportedly led to a hurt sentiment among the Lingayats who constituted at that time ( and even now) a big chunk of the population of the State and has come to weild power at the state level. Those incidents apart, Rajiv Gandhi controlled the Party through his cousin Arun Nehru and his close friend like Arun Singh, leading to even an eclipse of the party’s official high command.

The Bharariya Janata Party ( BJP) which rose to Power boosting itself as a party with a difference also adopted the high command culture investing the party high command with powers to decide on selectin of candidates for Lok Sabha and state assembly elections across the country as well as the choice of chief ministers of States. The high command has come to mean, under the present dispensation, the role played by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and the Party President J. P. Nadda in that order.

It is this high command driven decision of the BJP in its decision to field candidates for the ensuing Rajya and Legislative Council elections, specially in Karnataka, which provides the context for this article. As regards the choice of candidates for the Rajya Sabha, it is very well known that the local sentiment was to choosea a state level senior leader andf not to field the incumbent union finance minister Ms. Nirmala Sitaraman from the State. But the BJP high command has brushed aside the regional sentiment and decided to field her from the State for a second term. Likewise, the choice of popular film star and party-man Jaggesh for the Rajya Sabha seat has also come as a surprise to Jaggesh himself as confided by him, and the state level leaders, though the decision was probably taken with the intention of wooing the Vokkaliga voters in the assembly elections scheduled to take place in early 2023. The least that was expected was for the party high command to ask formally the state level leaders to recommend the names it had chosen. Though the caste/communal consideration in the choice of the candidate may have merit, it nonetheless shows the critical role played by the Party high command. Even in the choice of candidates for the Legislative Council elections, the BJP high command has ignored the state party leadership and chief minister Basavaraj Bommai. It is also a well known fact that the chief minister has not been able to get the approval of the party high command regarding the timing of the expansion of his council of ministers and the list he is reported to have submitted during his previous three visits to New Delhi. It is a sad commentary on the powerlessness of the Chief Minister. The party high command and key RSS functionaries are reportedly taking decisions, even ignoring the noting made by the General Secretary of the Party in charge of the State.

The position in the Congress Party too clearly reflects the dominant role being played by the Party high command. The names suggested by the State Party President Shivakumar and the leader of the Opposition in the Assembly Siddaramaiah have been brushed aside by the high command regarding the choice of candidates for the Rajya Sabba and the Legislative Council. While the choice of Jairam Ramesh for the Rajya Sabha may be alright given his stature and utility to the Party, what cannot be ruled out is the fact that Sonia Gandhi approved his name in view of his continued loyalty to the Gandhi family. The state level leadership is reported to have supported the nomination of a minority (Christian) name keeping in mind the assembly elections. But, the high command did not pay heed to the suggestion. It is also worth noting that senior leaders of the party and former Chairpersons of the Legislative Council, V. Sudarshan and B. L. Shankar have reportedly expressed their displeasure over the lack of consultation at the state level in the preparation of the list submitted by Shivakumar-Suddaramaiah duo to the party high command for consideration for the Council and Rajya Sabha polls. It is a sad commentary about the decision making pattern and structures in the post-Udaipur phase of the Congress Party. At Udaipur, the interim president Sonia Gandhi vaxed eloquently about the need for revitalising the Party with a bottoms up approach.

The sad conclusion is that not only the Indian Parliamentary democracy is experiencing the dominance of elected authoritarian leaders at the Central and State level like in West Bengal, but the internal functioning of the Parties is marked by the extraordinary role played by the high commands. The high commands play a dominant role in regional Parties like the Janata Dal (S), the DMK and the TRS, to name only a few.

(Dr. P. S. Jayaramu is former Professor of Political Science, Bangalore University and former Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi.)

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