20 - 06 - 2019

Time Cong, BJP had policy on appointing CM

The drill of appointing a chief minister, couched speciously as “electing” one, is full of anomalies, irrespective of whether it is conducted by the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) because neither has any policy, criteria or methodology to simplify and streamline the process.

  Expediency and nepotism are apparently the measures because the chief minister's position, being what it is, is regarded as a means of bestowing patronage and inveigling lifelong allegiance to a party's central command, much as the BJP touts its “internal” democracy as a feature that distinguishes it from the Congress.

No clear yardstick

The absence of a clear yardstick was visible after the Congress turned in an impressive showing in three state elections in the Hindi belt recently. The only success it had registered in the recent past was Punjab. Capt Amarinder Singh headed the Congress’ Punjab unit and was credited with leading the party to victory. Consequently, Singh's anointment as chief minister seemed correct and legitimate. The typical rush of factional leaders staking their claim to the top job was off and it appeared as though the high command was presented with a fait accompli, a done deed. 

Punjab could have recommended itself as a norm to the Congress. A leader heading a state unit and spearheading the party to a win would be the natural choice as chief minister. Punjab almost became a precedent after the victory in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, except that in Rajasthan, the prelude to appointing the chief minister was influenced by the factional fight that preceded it, during electioneering. Sachin Pilot was despatched to head the Rajasthan Congress in January 2014, ground himself in the state and recharge the party that had sunk to its lowest ever depth in the 2013 Assembly elections. Pilot executed the mandate with diligence and aggression, but when it came to naming the chief minister, veteran Ashok Gehlot beat him to it. That Gehlot and Pilot were not on the same page for long was obvious to the Rajasthan Congress. 

In MP and Chhattisgarh, Rahul Gandhi, the Congress President, handed over the baton to the respective state party chiefs, Kamal Nath and Bhupesh Baghel. Nath and Baghel had earned plaudits for revamping the party organisation and lifting workers’ morale from the near-oblivion that they were consigned to after 15 years in the Opposition. Baghel reinvented the Congress after the entire brass was eliminated in a deadly attack at Jhiram Ghati in Sukhma district. Thereafter, Ajit Jogi’s stranglehold over the Congress, with his controversial son, Amit, as a back-up did not help the Congress. Baghel leveraged his position to marginalise the Jogis and rebuild the Congress from scratch. He had formidable contenders in TS Singh Deo and Charan Das Mahant, but when it was down to brass tacks, the PCC president won the day. 

Why was Rajasthan an exception? 

Ex post facto, a number of reasons have been given for Rajasthan being the exception. 

  • First, the verdict that denied the Congress a clear majority and increased its dependence on the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) called for realpolitik skills that only an old hand like Gehlot could summon.  
  • Second, his experience would come in useful during the Lok Sabha elections. 
  • Third, Gehlot belonged to the Mali caste that had never upset social equations while Pilot was from the dominant Gujjar caste that was a red rag to other powerful groupings, such as the Meena, Jat and Rajput.

 

When Telugu ‘pride’ was hurt

Maintaining social equipoise is one aspect of the scenario. The Congress has generally treated its chief ministers like puppets of the high command that manipulated the strings. Sub-nationalist sentiments might never have been kindled in Andhra Pradesh had the high command been more benign towards its chief ministers. Between 1978 and 1983, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi appointed and deposed five individuals as chief minister, including J Vengala Rao, M Chenna Reddy, Tanguturi Anjaiah, Bhavanam Venkatrami Reddy and K Vijayabhaskara Rao. The frequent changes hurt “Telugu pride” and fostered an ambience for the rise of NT Rama Rao and his Telugu Desam Party. 

Anjaiah, who was ousted for irritating Rajiv Gandhi when Gandhi visited Hyderabad as Congress General Secretary, famously remarked “I came by the grace of Madam, I am going under her orders. I don’t know why I came and why I am going.” A classic understatement, considering that as chief minister, he ensured that the heads of local body were directly elected by the electors for the first time and reduced the voting age from 21 to 18.

Has BJP acquitted itself more honourably?  

Regarding the BJP, consider the aftermath of the last Himachal Pradesh election. Prem Kumar Dhumal was announced as CM candidate in the penultimate week of electioneering. Serendipitously, he lost his seat. It emerged later that from the beginning, the central leaders had Jairam Thakur’s name in mind. It’s tantalising to speculate what might have happened if Dhumal had won. BJP’s central observers Nirmala Sitharaman and Narendra Singh Tomar, whom party President Amit Shah sent to Shimla to oversee the “election” of the chief minister, went through the motion of “consulting” the Himachal Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and legislators. When Dhumal’s supporters raised slogans for him despite the defeat, Shah dealt the final blow when he directed Dhumal to issue a statement declaring he was not in the race. The high command had had its way.

Rahul Gandhi added a new dimension to the exercise by involving Congress workers in the selection of their chief ministers through the designated “Shakti” online platform. The idea was to message to a larger audience that he wanted to end the exclusive and elitist high command culture. A laudable initiative, but are the country’s mainstream parties ready to discard the weight of legacy?

 

Radhika Ramaseshan
Senior journalist