I love the sound of the term ‘high command’. It invokes a certain hauteur, an imperial grandeur, an impression of supreme gravitas.
In India, it has come to be an entity in itself in the political lexicon. Among journalists in Delhi, the high command used to be invoked in hushed tones. Those with access to the thoughts of the high command were at one time looked upon with awe.
Many an evening would start with a journalistic worthy saying, "High command was telling me…" even as the rest of us lower down the pecking order strained to bask in the reflected glory.
You will notice that I speak of the hallowed high command in the past tense. Today, the only really welcome development I can think of in politics is the slow erosion of the once fearsome high command.
The trend started with the Congress where it was Indira Gandhi who was a high command in herself.
Then followed what seemed to a collegiate high command, though I must confess I was never privy to its inner workings.
As the day progresses, we will get to know which way the state elections went. But, it cannot have escaped your notice that the high commands in both the main parties were not a real factor this time around.
The BJP prides itself in not having any commanding presence telling its regional chieftains what to do. It is not for want of trying.
When he was party president, Nitin Gadkari did try to crack the whip with the dissenting and later rampaging BS Yeddyurappa in Karnataka who politely told him to go and take a ride.
The Congress high command is so entrenched, that I have often thought that it might pop up just about anywhere much like the Spanish inquisitors in the popular Monty Python series.
But, I bring you good tidings as we near the next general elections. This time around, it was the chief ministers and chief ministerial aspirants who called the shots. The high commands did not tell them what issues to take up.
They did pretty much as they pleased. Let us look at the Congress first, the fountainhead of the high command. In Rajasthan, it is Ashok Gehlot who will bear responsibility for which way the state goes.
Yes, campaigners from Delhi have taken a swing around the state, those in charge of the state from the Centre have popped around, but the show has been Gehlot’s alone. Similarly, his chief contender too has written her own script and hardly makes any mention of the BJP’s high command if one can call it that.
The same is the case in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram. The local leaderships from the national parties in the fray have struck out on their own, selecting and discarding advice from above at their discretion.
In Delhi, many people sighed in pain at the sight of chief minister Sheila Dikshit ploughing a lonely furrow. But I see it differently. It is she who has carried the can for 15 long years, it is she who should decide how to play out the game.
Similarly, it is Harsh Vardhan who has given the BJP a credible chance in Delhi and it is he who should call the shots. And he is doing so. In fact, both are standing on the burning deck so to speak even as the Aam Aadmi Party, broom in hand, is sweeping away the leaves of discontent.
Let us get away from the elections for a while. Even a seemingly meek Kiran Kumar Reddy in Andhra Pradesh has spoken his mind on the Telangana issue in direct contravention of the high command. I cannot think of this happening 10 years ago.
In Kerala, an embattled chief minister Oommen Chandy fought his own battles when faced with the solar scam. He faced down a truculent Left and did not send for moral reinforcements from Delhi.
And the high command left well alone.
The BJP to its credit has been something of a trendsetter in letting its chief ministers do their own thing. The Congress, to my mind, has wisely followed suit. The days of chief ministers air-dashing, how I love that word, to Delhi to seek the guidance of the high command seem more or less over.
This is not to say that the high command does not have the ultimate suzerainty over the party’s functionaries, but it has become more circumspect in the way it interacts with those on the field. The state leaders are today the masters of almost all they survey.
Just as we clamour for the government to be just a facilitator in business, the high command is evolving into a mentor for the flock.
Today, it is the chief ministers who issue invitations to the high command to come and campaign on their turf.
I for one am really glad that this has happened.
Like the Left comrades who still run the party from AKG Bhavan in Delhi — and what a mess they have made of things — the high commands could not have continued their reign by diktat.
The new reality is that power has slipped away from the centre. Whoever wins or loses today, it would be unfair to lay it at the door of the high command of either party.
Eventually I suspect the very word high command will fade away from our politics. It has no place in a real democracy. But, I have to confess, that I will mourn its demise if for nothing the fact that it has such a regal ring to it.