There is a story, possibly apocryphal, on Babasaheb Bhosale being made Maharashtra chief minister in 1982 when AR Antulay had to resign in the wake of the cement scandal, which perhaps best illustrates the Congress ‘culture’ of power sharing. Shocked by the surprise appointment of Barrister Bhosale, a senior Congressman summoned the courage to ask Indira Gandhi why she had chosen a political non-entity with no mass base to the high profile post. “Well, the very fact that he is a political novice with no mass appeal makes him the perfect choice!” was Mrs Gandhi’s sharp response.
The Bhosale example is apt in the context of the growing criticism of Uttarakhand chief minister Vijay Bahuguna’s handling of the aftermath of the cloudburst that left thousands dead and missing in the hills. Like Bhosale, Bahuguna too was a rank outsider suddenly catapulted into the chief minister’s chair by the grace of the Congress ‘high command’. He had limited administrative experience, having spent his professional life as a lawyer and judge. He became a Member of Parliament first in 2007 in a by-election but had virtually no base in Uttarakhand. What he did have was a famous political surname, a quiet, ever-smiling persona and yes, the blessings of the central leadership.
Losing out in the chief ministerial battle was the Congress’s Uttarakhand political strongman Harish Rawat, a five-time MP, a former state Congress president, someone who had worked his way up from village politics. In most situations, Rawat would have been the obvious choice, a true son of the soil. Not in the Congress. Like with Bhosale all those years ago, the Congress preferred to choose a political lightweight rather than someone who could claim to have carved out an independent status for himself.
Uttarakhand, in a sense, is in keeping with the Congress tradition of appointing chief ministers not on the basis of grassroots credibility or charisma, but quite simply, on their ‘connections’ with the power axis in Delhi. The last truly independent Congress chief minister was YS Rajasekhara Reddy who ran Andhra Pradesh with an iron fist. Perhaps shaken by the turbulent aftermath of his sudden death, the Congress central leadership has been even more conscious in exercising greater control over their chief ministers. The closest the party now has to a genuine regional satrap is Assam’s three-time chief minister Tarun Gogoi who has tended to keep Guwahati at an arm’s length from Delhi. A Bhupinder Singh Hooda too, might like to see himself as the ‘boss’ of Haryana, but even he knows his future is tied to keeping his political benefactors in Delhi in good humour. We should discount the highly successful Sheila Dikshit here since the Delhi chief minister is essentially a glorified mayor, still chained by the limits on her executive powers.
Contrast the weakening of the Congress’s chief ministerial authority with the manner in which the BJP-ruled states have seen the emergence of powerful chieftains. Narendra Modi is the most obvious example of the BJP model of virtually ‘outsourcing’ its state units to strong individuals, but there are others too. A Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh and a Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh carry the appeal of being tough and ‘decisive’ leaders because they have been given the autonomy in decision-making which is sadly absent in many Congress-ruled states where the chief ministers have to rush to Delhi to clear even minor Cabinet reshuffles.
This shift in the power axis has had consequences for state and national politics. In a state like Uttarakhand, it exposes political ineptitude in a crisis wherein the chief minister looks for instructions from Delhi and issues large ads thanking the Manmohan-Sonia leadership rather than pro-actively taking decisions on his own.
At a national level, it means that the Congress is still almost wholly dependent on the appeal of the First Family to win elections, a dependence which encourages sycophancy as a pre-requisite for upward mobility within the party. Rather than decentralising power in the era of political fragmentation, the Congress has largely persisted with shaping its politics through the Delhi coteries, thereby reducing their ability to compete with the increasingly assertive social and political forces in state capitals. Why is it, for example, that the Congress cannot offer a credible challenge in a UP to a Mulayam or a Mayawati, or in Bihar to a Nitish, or in Bengal to a Mamata or in Orissa to a Naveen Patnaik? Quite frankly, because the party has emasculated state leaders by making them little more than ‘agents’ of the Centre.
The BJP has the problem in inverse. The rise of personality-based politics in BJP-ruled states has meant the near-decimation of traditional party hierarchies in those states. When a regional boss can talk directly to the voter by bypassing the established party apparatus, he feels virtually unaccountable to any other authority. A weakened central leadership is then powerless to rein in such a chief minister who sees himself as, at the very least, a first among equals. Gujarat provides a good example of the strengths and weaknesses of the BJP’s model of ‘outsourcing’ power to the states.
The choice is then clear: a Congress-style Uttarakhand model, on the one hand, breeds a weak leadership, but also prevents the emergence of dictatorial tendencies. A BJP-style Gujarat model can aid speedy decision-making, but runs the risk of creating autocratic rule. Where the two models do converge is that voters across the country are placing a premium on good governance. As the Congress may discover to its cost, it’s not just nature’s wrath, voter anger could be just as unforgiving in Uttarakhand.
Post-script: The recent appointments of Virbhadra Singh in Himachal Pradesh and Siddaramaiah in Karnataka suggest that even the Congress is now finally learning to respect regional leaders. Bottomline: you can’t rule India from Lutyens’ Delhi any more.
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 network
The views expressed by the author are personal