The Bharatiya Janata Party has managed in just seven years what the Congress achieved in 70 — a high command culture. The recent week-long drama to pick the new chief minister in Assam shows exactly how the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah operates.
The BJP won a decisive mandate in Assam, its second consecutive stint in a state that is not its traditional base. Sure, the victory was a pro-incumbency vote for the Sarbananda Sonowal-led government, but it was as much a result of smart strategising, management and execution of the BJP’s election campaign under Himanta Biswa Sarma, the party’s go-to man in the region. So, picking one of them for the CM post was always a sticky situation. But not by much. The decision should have been put to a vote at a legislative party meet. Or the regional satraps could have been allowed to sort it out.
But what did the ‘high command’ of the BJP do? It took a week to think over the choices, made both Sonowal and Sarma appear before the top leadership in Delhi, and then read the decision out to them. It looks like a top-down approach that the BJP has so far claimed to not harbour — where the high command is the chief conductor of the orchestra. This trait is generally associated with the Congress where the default mode of functioning is to ‘run to the Gandhis for every decision’. The BJP merely seems to be borrowing a leaf from its principal rival’s oldest book.
What makes it especially jarring is that the central BJP kept itself preoccupied with the selection of a chief minister when its unequivocal priority should have been on handling the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and containing the devastation it’s been causing for the past couple of months.
The Himanta Vs Sonowal drama
The BJP wasn’t surprised when the difficult ‘Sarma or Sonowal’ choice presented itself — after all, it fought the election without a clear face, much like the Congress, even though the two parties’ similar pre-poll predicament stood poles apart for various reasons.
But the scenes that played out in the BJP camp after the verdict would not have been any different had the Congress won the election. Its claimants for the top post would be camping in Delhi, lobbying for their selection.
And so, instead of going the democratic way of letting the Assam unit decide, the BJP high command in Delhi thought it more prudent to summon the leaders and play the stick-wielding headmaster. Sources in the BJP privy to the matter said Amit Shah did most of the talking at the meetings between the top leadership and Sarma-Sonowal. Shah is said to have assured the former chief minister that he wasn’t being punished, that he ran the government well, and that Sarma was being chosen because his time had come.
The meeting of BJP’s Assam legislators, the announcement of Sarma’s name by senior leader Narendra Singh Tomar, and the illusion of meetings being called by party president J.P. Nadda were all predictable, but not convincing, optics.
Top-down is the new norm
Of course, no political party or organisation functions without those at the top vetting every decision. It’s just that in this case, the growing ‘high command’ culture of the BJP, where Modi and Shah call every shot, became that much evident. It’s another matter that the party chose to shine light on its character at a time when both the prime minister and the home minister ought to be focussing their energies on managing the Covid surge, a situation that clearly slipped out of their hands while they were busy politicking.
This isn’t the first time, though, that the BJP’s tendency was just too easy to spot. Modi-Shah have been presiding over a rule where internal friction within state units — whether in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, and now Assam — have been allowed to simmer, just long enough for the high command to play its ‘divide-and-rule’ policy, much like the Congress.
J.P. Nadda’s elevation as BJP president was entirely to suit the interests of Modi and Shah, who knew they would practically run the party with a loyalist at the helm.
This is the same BJP that fairly elected Narendra Modi to lead the party in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, despite top leaders like L.K. Advani being opposed to the idea.
The problem with Modi and Shah is that they want to play prime minister and home minister, and micro-manage the BJP at the same time, bringing every decision to their doorstep. The duo has become so powerful, and the party so dependent on them, that it plays out very much like the unhealthy Congress-Gandhi relationship, where just one side calls the shots.
The consistent Congress culture
The lobbying and jostling seen in the week-long saga to pick Assam’s new CM is something that Congress leaders have been doing at 10 Janpath for decades.
In a dramatic turn of events in 2004, Congress president Sonia Gandhi declined to be the prime minister following protests against her ‘foreign’ origin, and anointed trusted aide Manmohan Singh instead, the operative word being ‘anointed’. The move blended right into the Congress’ culture, where ensuring complete control over decision-making is paramount.
In the Congress Working Committee meeting Monday, the party decided to defer internal polls again, saying it would like to focus on the pandemic instead. But who needs fresh elections and democratically elected faces when you have the almighty high command to dictate matters anyway?
From picking the prime minister to deciding on chief ministers and giving its favourites the edge, the Congress top command has been guilty of unhealthy over-centralisation. A style now being emulated by the BJP.
For Himanta Biswa Sarma, it was this high command culture and the top leadership’s biases that forced him to quit the Congress in 2015. Ironically, it is the same culture, now in the BJP, that aided his rise to Assam’s top post.
Over reliance on this high-command structure is the reason the Congress stares into a deep, dark abyss today. Modi-Shah BJP evidently believes this couldn’t happen to it.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)