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Sunday, September 27, 2020

Out of my mind: Power as poison

Prime ministers get blamed for everything that goes wrong even when the problem may be with the states and their failure to maintain law and order, as in the cases of lynching or rape or harassment.

Written by Meghnad Desai | Updated: July 22, 2018 1:10:18 am
Karnataka Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy breaks down while speaking of Congress-JDS coalition govt Karnataka Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy gets emotional during the party function in Bengaluru. (PTI Photo)

Seeing a chief minister cry in public is a sight at which, to quote Oscar Wilde, it would be cruel not to laugh. No one requires H D Kumaraswamy to swallow the poison of power. Indeed there are plenty in his party and the Congress who would be happy to take over. As former US president Harry Truman said, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Karnataka has a tradition over many decades to have produced some outstanding chief ministers. Barely a weak vessel among them. One can only hope that sense would prevail and Kumaraswamy would laugh his way to a resignation.

By and large, chief ministers, especially of larger states (those with more than 10 Lok Sabha seats), have managed to run presidential-style regimes. If the majority in the Legislative Assembly is adequate and under control, the chief minister can ignore it, bully the Cabinet and carry on with the help of the civil service. Think of Mamata Banerjee, Jayalalithaa, Mayawati when she ruled Uttar Pradesh and, most of all, Narendra Modi in his 12 years in Gujarat. Originally, the 1946 Cabinet Mission scheme specified powerful provinces and a weak Centre. But after Partition, the Constituent Assembly changed its mind and power was vested in the Centre. Since then, the balance has again reverted in favour of the states. The Centre has most of the revenue but successive Finance Commissions have strengthened the states’ finances. States like Tamil Nadu, Odisha and West Bengal are run by regional parties and are practically autonomous.

If you have a clear view of what your voters need, then you can do better work as chief minister. There is more freedom and less hassle. At the Centre, you have to deal with a non-functioning Parliament unless you have an overwhelming majority in both Houses or just good luck. Prime ministers get blamed for everything that goes wrong even when the problem may be with the states and their failure to maintain law and order, as in the cases of lynching or rape or harassment.

It was the strength of the states which kept India together during the long period in which there was no single-party majority at the Centre. Indians have forgotten what it was like to have a decisive, functioning prime minister. Even Rajiv Gandhi was beleaguered once the Bofors scandal broke out. You have to go back to Indira Gandhi 1980-1984 to recall the smack of firm government. We are back in those days and many in the country complain that there is no tolerance!

When the Centre is indecisive, power leaks either downwards towards the states or across to the Supreme Court or fatally to the mob. It was the indecisiveness of UPA I and II which meant groups of ministers in dozens deciding what a well-functioning cabinet with a strong prime minister could have done. The indecisiveness meant that it took many cases to the judiciary, which often did the cabinet’s job. Had Narasimha Rao acted firmly in December 1992, Babri Masjid would still be standing and the subsequent 26 years of dispute would not have happened.
India needs a functioning cabinet led by a decisive prime minister. Not a person who thinks of power as a poisoned chalice and cries.

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