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Why do we have High Commands in India?

For all of this week, political observers have been enthralled by the spectacle of the Congress setting fire to the best part of its own house.

Punjab is one of the few North Indian states where the Modi wave has made no real impact. The Congress’s charismatic and experienced Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh has not only kept the BJP at bay, he has also left the Akalis in disarray and prevented AAP from growing.


His reward for all of this was on display last week when the Congress High Command which had nourished and encouraged Navjot Singh Sidhu, the celebrated former cricketer and former BJP MP, decided to treat Sidhu and Amarinder as being on par. It listened respectfully to the Chief Minister’s detractors, did not act against Sidhu when he called the Chief Minister names and made Amarinder seek the approval of an internal committee of mostly second division leaders. The Gandhis, who have known Amarinder for decades, did not meet him.


   While Indian political observers wondered why the Congress might want to destabilise one of the few states where it is comfortably placed only a few months before an election, observers of Indian politics from abroad had a different question.


   “What exactly is a High Command?” they asked.


   Good question.


   In fact the concept of a High Command is one of India’s many contributions to global democracy. In most countries with a Westminster-style system of government, there is no such concept. Nor is it common in countries with a federal structure.  In the US, for instance, a Democratic governor may respect President Joe Biden but he knows the President does not have the power to remove him or even, to discipline him.


   So why do we have High Commands in India? Does the term, with its martial associations, really have any place in a democratic society?


   Well, in Jawaharlal Nehru’s time, the Congress had no High Command to speak of. The Prime Minister had an enormous moral stature (throughout the country, not just in the Congress party) and the Party President was usually a well-respected figure. But state Chief Ministers were also powerful men with their own political bases. Some of them even openly disagreed with the Prime Minister who respected their views and their right to do things their own way.


   The Congress developed a High Command structure only under Indira Gandhi. When Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri died suddenly in Tashkent in 1966, it was the powerful state Chief Ministers and Congress leaders who selected Indira Gandhi to be his successor. But the leaders expected her to do their bidding and within three years Mrs. Gandhi had rebelled.


   In 1969, she split the Congress, calling her faction the Congress (R) while the state leaders controlled the organisational faction called the Congress (O).


   Mrs. Gandhi wiped out the Congress (O) in the 1971 election and never again allowed any powerful state leaders to grow too strong in the Congress. Assembly elections were fought in her name and she would nominate Chief Ministers herself. Generally, she chose people who had no independent support bases and owed their positions only to her.


   All important decisions were referred to Delhi and the concept of a High Command to which these obedient Lance Naiks reported, took hold in the Congress.


"Ever since its collapse in two successive General Elections, the Congress has struggled to impose the High Command model on its states."

   In 1977, Mrs. Gandhi was ousted from the Congress after a massive defeat following the Emergency, so she split the Congress again, calling her faction the Congress (I). In the 1979/80 election, the Congress (I) emerged victorious and the High Command structure reasserted itself. It remained that way through Rajiv Gandhi's reign too.


   While Prime Ministers liked the idea of the High Command that kept state Chief Ministers in their place, this concept only worked if the Prime Minister could win elections for the state leaders. The deal was: I get you elected and you do whatever I say.


   This arrangement collapsed towards the end of Narasimha Rao’s term when it became clear that he was no election-winner. State leaders realised the central leadership could do nothing for them.


   So they rebelled. For instance, Mamata Banerjee walked out and started her own party. In Tamilnadu every Congressman of note left to found the Tamil Maanila Congress.


   When the Congress finally returned to office eight years after Narasimha Rao led the party to defeat, the High Command structure re-emerged but it was no longer as strong as it once had been. For instance, the Congress leadership needlessly alienated the family of the late YS Reddy (YSR) which led to the emergence of the YSR Congress, founded after Jagan, YSR’s son, walked out of the Congress. In 2004, Andhra had been the key to the Congress’s victory. Now, after the exit of the YSR faction, the Congress hardly counts for anything in the state.


   Ever since its collapse in two successive General Elections, the Congress has struggled to impose the High Command model on its states. In Madhya Pradesh, it disregarded Jyotiraditya Scindia’s claims and appointed Kamal Nath as Chief Minister. In Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot was appointed over Sachin Pilot’s objections. Only in Punjab, was there no other obvious candidate for the job so Amarinder became Chief Minister.


   But the High Command model did not work. Scindia departed for the BJP leading to the collapse of the Madhya Pradesh government. Sachin Pilot rebelled and the government survived only after he had been mollified. His aides now suggest that the High Command has not kept its end of the bargain and Rajasthan remains a ticking time bomb for the Congress.


   In Assam, the High Command model led to Hemanta Biswal Sharma leaving for the BJP after he had an unsatisfactory meeting with Rahul Gandhi. (He is now Chief Minister and the BJP has won two elections in a row in Assam.) In Maharashtra despite the High Command’s reservations (if not outright objections) the Congress’s MLAs, opted to join a coalition with the Shiv Sena.


   So, in many ways, Punjab is the last gasp of the High Command model. Amarinder Singh is old-school enough to make the journey to Delhi to explain himself. But another leader in his place (say, Sidhu, who has form in this regard) could simply threaten to walk out of the party, as so many others have done, so successfully.


   None of this is to say that the growing failure of the High Command model within the Congress is a triumph of inner-party democracy. It is much more pragmatic than that. If the High Command wants people to listen to it, then it must assure them that their legislative seats are safe, that they can win elections in the name of the High Command. This was why the model worked in the Indira-era.


   The problem is that the present Congress High Command is not able to offer any such assurances. The Congress’s electoral record is dismal, while many of those who have left have flourished outside the Congress. (At least five non Congress Chief Ministers are people who walked out of the Congress complaining about the High Command.)


   If Rahul Gandhi can demonstrate that he is a vote winner, then the High Command model would seem strong and unchallenged again. But, as of now, this has not happened.


   But the High Command model remains one of India’s great — if slightly dodgy—contributions to global democratic practices. It may be dying in the Congress but just look at the BJP.


   As the party continues its transition to becoming a mirror image of the Indira Gandhi Congress, the High Command model has never seemed stronger. Nothing of note happens in the BJP without the involvement of Narendra Modi or Amit Shah who appoint all Chief Ministers. State leaders know who the bosses are.


   So yes, the Congress High Command model is on its way out. But the BJP’s High Command model looks set to rule and rule.



Posted On: 25 Jun 2021 01:14 PM
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