Time for the high command to go

Centralisation of power in the Congress is neither winning voters nor motivating cadres.

Updated: February 26, 2014 3:57:59 am
Poor political management has become synonymous with the Congress party’s current governance. Poor political management has become synonymous with the Congress party’s current governance.

Pradeep Chhibber and  Harsh Shah

The Congress may have temporarily resolved its Telangana conundrum with the passage of the legislation to bifurcate Andhra Pradesh. But the disruptions in Parliament, the suspension of Congress MPs and the vehement opposition of the Andhra chief minister to his own party’s decision to push for Telangana signals that the party’s central leadership, or high command, did not secure the support of the state leadership before announcing the Telangana decision, leading to an internal rebellion.

It is clear that the chaos, to a large extent, could have been avoided by better political management. Poor political management has become synonymous with the Congress party’s current governance. The centralised organisational structure of the Congress is the root cause of its political mismanagement. A centrally controlled dynastic party does not enable the political education of home-grown talent at the state level.

The Congress has prided itself on being the only national party in India that can hold together a diverse coalition. Given India’s social complexities, coalition-building and coalition-maintenance are central to the electoral success and longevity of any party. No party has stayed in power for an extended period in any state without learning how to stitch together a broad enough coalition in a state. The Congress has often asserted that no other party can build and maintain a similar coalition. The rhetoric (and hubris) that accompanied this claim has stressed that in the 1950s and 1960s, the Congress was the only party that could hold India together. In the 1970s, the message was, “there is no alternative”, or the TINA factor. Now, the message from the Congress is that there is only one national secular plural party — the Congress.

A second element of the Congress’s strategy since the 1970s has been to centralise power and decision-making and present a dynasty as its face. For most of the time since Independence, the Congress has presented a member of the Gandhi family as the face of the party. Jawaharlal Nehru was the undisputed leader of the party through the 1950s and early 1960s. Indira Gandhi’s autocratic tendencies did not stop the then Congress president, Devakanta Baruah, from raising the slogan “Indira is India and India is Indira”. Today, the support for the Gandhi family is less brazen, but still very obvious. References to the “high command” as the ultimate decision-making authority are common in Congress leaders’ public statements. It is claimed that the Congress has been most successful under the Gandhi family’s leadership, as the dynasts have been able to stitch and hold together diverse coalitions.

The current political mismanagement that is associated with the Congress is largely due to the clear tension between the need to build and maintain coalitions at the state level and vesting power in a central dynastic system. Why is this the case? At the state and local levels, political education begins with the need to learn the give-and-take of electoral politics. The diverse and complex nature of Indian society makes coalition-building and coalition-maintenance a necessity. This has to be learnt through experience. In a centralised system, where the high command can be called in to smooth over intra-party factional disputes, state-level politicians associated with the Congress do not receive the political education that is necessary. If there were no high command that could intervene and settle matters, a state-level leader would have to learn how to hold a diverse coalition together. In the current system, factional conflicts are mediated by the high command rather than resolved locally. The latter is essential, for only then do politicians and parties become versed in the art of give-and-take that is foundational in a democratic and diverse society.

The excessive interference of the central leadership in state affairs has obviously weakened the party’s chief ministers, who do not have the authority to take big decisions without the blessing of the high command. More important, however, is the Congress’s history of restricting the rise of home-grown regional leaders up the party ranks. Sharad Pawar is a prime example. Even today, it often chooses to run its state-level campaigns under the leadership of Delhi-based Union ministers. In the December 2013 state elections, for example, Union Power Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia led the party’s campaign in Madhya Pradesh. Scindia has never been an MLA in the state, and has focused on national politics since the inception of his political career. Similarly, the Congress relied heavily on the leadership of Sachin Pilot for its campaign in Rajasthan during the same assembly elections. Pilot, another Union minister, has remained a national leader throughout his political career, and has never contested an assembly seat. In MP, the Congress secured just 58 of the 230 contested assembly seats. In Rajasthan, it performed even worse, securing only 21 of the 200 contested seats.

An oft-made defence of the high command system is that only a strong central leadership committed to pluralism and secularism can manage India’s diversity and plurality. That claim has been belied by the rise of very successful chief ministers in Bihar and Orissa, for instance, who are secular and manage to hold together diverse coalitions within their state. The rise of the AAP also suggests that a successful left-of-centre, secular, non-Congress national politics is indeed possible. A second defence is that only a strong national leadership can negotiate successfully with regional parties. This argument too is now being challenged. At the state level, the Congress has recently broken off its alliance with the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and is leading a rather discordant alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra.

By restricting the rise of home-grown leaders at the state level, the Congress has left its states devoid of efficient political managers. The party’s prevalent high-command culture neither seems to be motivating its cadre nor attracting voters. Rather, it is weakening the foundations of the party, especially at the state level. The Telangana incident highlights the weakness of the high command system. Perhaps it is time for the high command to go?

The writers are with the Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, US

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