Current General Studies Magazine: "The Power to Centralise" December 2015

Current General Studies Magazine (December 2015)

General Studies - II "Polity Based Article" (The Power to Centralise)

India has seen a centralisation of power under Narendra Modi. Some compare the current centralisation to that of Indira Gandhi, who was the first Prime Minster of India to concentrate power in the Prime Minister’s Office. But the centralisation of power in the executive branch is not unique to the Centre.

In contemporary India, most States are governed by Chief Ministers who have centralised authority in their own offices. The power exercised by Mamata Banerjee, J. Jayalalithaa, the Badal family, Naveen Patnaik, and the Yadav family in Uttar Pradesh is too well known to need recounting. Control over patronage necessitates the accumulation of power in the offices of the Prime Minister and Chief Ministers.

A successful leader of a political party in India acts as a patron who has access to money and/or the resources of the state. Patronage is necessary to win elections and to sustain the party’s organisation. Elections are won by building coalitions of local leaders who command the votes of different sections of society. These local and State leaders win votes by acting as patrons to a segment of the electorate.

Once a Prime Minister or Chief Minister is in power, he/she has to decide whether to centralise authority or to let other powerful leaders in the Cabinet or party have their way. The Constitution and the political system have left room for the Prime Minister’s Office to be as anarchic as the H.D. Deve Gowda administration or as centralised as Indira Gandhi’s or Mr. Modi’s administrations. Decentralisation gives control over resources to other politicians in the Prime Minister’s or Chief Minister’s party. The immediate consequence of this is that if Cabinet Ministers have independent authority, they can undermine the office of the Prime Minister or Chief Minister.

Party versus government

Top politicians, weak and strong, continuously face threats from within their party. In the 2012 Uttarakhand Assembly elections, one of the State’s most popular Congress leaders, Harish Rawat, was ignored for the post of Chief Minister and the high command decided to nominate Vijay Bahuguna for the post instead. The turf war between the two leaders then reached a low, with Mr. Rawat deciding to submit his resignation (which was later withdrawn) and even approaching the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). We’ve often seen struggles for power between Chief Ministers and State party presidents, whether in the case of the Nitish Kumar-Sharad Yadav duo (Janata Dal-United, Bihar) or the Bhupinder Singh Hooda-Ashok Tanwar struggle in Haryana. This constant internal threat to a leader’s authority and the need to maintain control of both party and government make Prime Ministers and Chief Ministers centralise power to retain their position.

Even India’s first Prime Minister, the beloved Jawaharlal Nehru, had to deal with the question of government-party dynamics. The first president of the Congress party post-Independence, J.B. Kripalani, believed that, as the party head, he was entitled to a seat at the power table within the government. The question of where power resided was only settled by Nehru’s decision to combine the functions of Prime Minister and party president in himself. Even when the post of party president was separated from the Prime Ministership, it was given to young Congress leaders with little political backing to question the Prime Minister.

Indira Gandhi had to deal with irritants in the Congress Syndicate, which eventually led to her forming the Congress (R) and replacing the old party with her own Congress party. Her daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, also had to do away with Sitaram Kesri, the Congress president, in 1998 in a way which few would call cordial and democratic.

The Modi era

Much like the way Indira Gandhi had to do away with the Syndicate to strengthen her own position, Mr. Modi too has tactically sidelined every single senior BJP leader, first during the elections and then during government formation. He brought in the 75-year retirement cut-off age and replaced every single senior party position with his own backers. Many argue that Mr. Modi could have served government better by giving Cabinet roles to bigwigs from the Atal Bihari Vajpayee administration such as Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie. Instead, Mr. Modi chose to sideline them, which allowed him to strengthen his hold on the party.

While most Prime Ministers have been centralisers, Manmohan Singh and P.V. Narasimha Rao are classic examples of Prime Ministers who never took it upon themselves to centralise authority in their offices. Their failure to do so saw India deal with factionalism in government and politics, loud corruption scandals, and unceremonious exits. When Rao took office in 1991, he was chosen for the post as a consensus candidate by the Congress because most leaders believed he would allow them to function as independent power centres. His failure to portray his power as Prime Minister in many ways led to the unceremonious end of his political career.
Dr. Singh wasn’t a consensus candidate, but instead was hand-picked for the job by Sonia Gandhi, the single-person party high command. As Sanjaya Baru claims in his book, The Accidental Prime Minister , Dr. Singh wasn’t even given the freedom to select his own ministers. His ministers owed their political patronage to the party president and took the liberty of making decisions without informing the Prime Minister. Even after UPA-2 came to power by positioning the Prime Minister as their leader, Sonia Gandhi made a point of clarifying to Dr. Singh that she was in charge. She appointed Pranab Mukherjee as Finance Minister without even consulting the Prime Minister. In addition, Cabinet Ministers did not just consider themselves central leaders; they also tried to maintain their holds on their political following in the States by interfering in State politics and pushing their own agenda with the Congress high command.

The cost of centralisation

While decentralisation causes havoc, political centralisation, too, comes at a cost. Indira Gandhi’s centralisation unified the opposition and denigrated the Congress’s institutions, leading to its weakening over time. In addition, during the tenure of UPA-1 and UPA-2, the central Congress leadership constantly interfered in the affairs of States, deputing both weak and strong central leaders, such as Prithviraj Chavan and Virbhadra Singh, to govern State governments. The high command’s interference disturbed political dynamics in the States, weakening party unity and increasing factionalism, and was largely responsible for its failure in the 2014 general election. Many would add that the Congress party’s high command culture even today keeps its central leadership disconnected from the various local organisations.

India’s leaders, from Prime Minister Modi to the many State Chief Ministers, must pay close attention to how they manage their tendencies to centralise. They must tread that fine path on which they maintain control over their administrations and organisation while also giving room for political ambition to reside under their wings.

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