Wednesday, 28 September, 2022
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Yes, chief minister

With decline in Centre's powers & rise in state's bargaining powers, people now see their CM as the main reason they vote for one party — there is more to this power than protocol.

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Nearly a decade of coalition rule now has produced many fundamental changes in our politics. But none of these is more significant than the rise of the chief minister as the most powerful player in our power structure. The chief minister is also the most visible face of the government, and the most dominant figure of the ruling establishment the voter relates to.

So steady and so decisive has this change been that sometimes we fail to notice its significance. At least I did, until a captain of the public sector brought it home to me on a flight from Mumbai last week. The finance minister, he said, was the least powerful, in a way. He cannot give you Rs 10, 000 out of turn, cannot allot you a house, gift you a plot. His job is mostly thankless, to tax and balance his budget while saying no to friend and foe for all kinds of things, from tax-breaks to budgetary allocations. The prime minister is about there. He, too, can do very little to help, or harm, you out of turn. Yes, he influences or controls the big policy-making. But how much can he get implemented? The real power, he said, had now shifted to state governments and the Central cabinet members were mere policy makers, sometimes only debaters, with the possible exception of the petroleum minister, who still controlled India’s largest corporations.

A chief minister, on the other hand, can now do what he wants. The state government’s total control over law and order (read police), for example, gave it tremendous powers under a weak Centre, particularly when most chief ministers did not have a high command to answer to in Delhi. Remember how nobody could intervene when Jayalalithaa’s police moved against the Shankaracharya and Amarinder Singh’s against the Badal family? Mulayam Singh Yadav can hand out hundreds of plots of land on a discretionary basis and does not have to bother about anybody’s criticism.

Also read: Under Modi-Shah, BJP is back to being the Bharatiya ‘Baniya’ Party

A politician as soft-spoken and gentlemanly as Naveen Patnaik uses his clout now to get the Posco project cleared, brushing aside opposition from friend (BJP) and foe (Congress and Left). Vasundhara Raje can initiate some remarkably striking reformist measures on infrastructure in her state without the need of having to explain anything to anybody. She can also reach out for help to the Bangalore Agenda Task Force, consisting of the captains of India’s showpiece tech industry even while the Congress-led coalition in Karnataka has junked it. Narendra Modi can run his state as he wishes without interference, in his case not even from his still overawed high command. And Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee can travel far out to the east, looking for industrial and real estate investment deals, give away township projects on a negotiated basis while his party high command falls in line and the prime minister, himself unable to swing a fraction of such change, applauds in admiration and awe.

In the past, since most chief ministers used to be from the dominant party at the Centre (mostly the Congress), they never realised or enjoyed the real powers that a federal constitution vested in them. They had to get their routine decisions, including postings and transfers, cleared with the high command. Now the situation has changed dramatically. Not only are a majority of chief ministers not from the coalition-leader now, many also draw special clout from the fact that their parties are members of the multi-party coalition in Delhi. The phenomenon began with Chandrababu Naidu so stunningly leveraging his outside support to NDA to corner an unlimited largesse for his plans for his state. In a way, he also led the phenomenon of chief ministers travelling out directly to look for foreign investments and deals.

With almost every chief minister doing it subsequently, including Laloo and Chautala, it may not look like such a remarkable change. But you only have to recall how our conservative establishment had resisted such things in the past. The Ministry of External Affairs, for example, has been so neurotic about any “direct” contacts between “others” in our government structure and foreigners that they even routinely get orders issued asking other cabinet ministers not to attend national day receptions at the various embassies without MEA clearance.

Frankly, even I had not figured how significant this change is until a senior British diplomat started chatting with me across the big Hyderabad House banquet table in the course of a meal our prime minister was hosting for Tony Blair. The diplomat was effusive in his praise for the West Bengal government, of how well his country’s aid funds (under DFID) were being utilised there, of how efficient its bureaucracy and how responsive its ministers were. I also noticed that a senior MEA official sitting next to him, and obviously listening in, was giving me disapproving (of him) glances. But the British diplomat did not notice that and talked in great detail of how a West Bengal government team had visited the high commission and made a very impressive power point presentation on the investment climate there. At which point the MEA person could not help but complain to me, in Hindi, mercifully: “See how times have changed. Now chief ministers do not even keep us in the loop while talking to foreign missions.” I’d like to know how much the foreign policy or Central establishment has to do with the dinner Mulayam Singh Yadav is hosting in Lucknow next week for Bill Clinton.

Also read: PM, CM, DM: India’s 3 big power centres have been exposed by one disaster

There is more to this power than mere protocol. With the decline in the Centre’s powers and with the rise in the state’s bargaining powers in a coalition situation, people have now begun to see their chief minister as the main reason they vote for one party or the other. Look at the 2004 verdict closely, and it is evident that almost in each state people voted for or against their chief minister. Sheila Dikshit, Mulayam and Laloo, for example, defied anti-incumbency because their opponents were not represented by state-level figures big enough to counter their appeal. The Tamil Nadu verdict was against Jayalalithaa, Modi hung on in Gujarat while his party did poorly in geographically and politically contiguous Maharashtra. The vote in Andhra was as much against Babu as for Rajasekhara Reddy, who had campaigned for years and been projected by the Congress as a strong, young, local candidate for chief ministership.

With coalitions likely to remain with us for a very long time, the chief minister’s power is bound to grow. So would his influence on electoral outcomes, even for the Lok Sabha. It is a change both major national parties, Congress and BJP, can ignore at their great peril. If in future strong chief ministers will be the main currency of policy implementation as well as vote-catching, could it be that the national parties will be at an inherent disadvantage since their regional satraps will be seen running all the time to the high command to clear this and that, while the Mulayams, Jayalalithaas, Modis, Vasundharas and Patnaiks carry on with much greater confidence and elan? The BJP has already given itself lightweights in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The Congress has gone out of its way to cut to size Sheila Dikshit and Vilasrao Deshmukh. Even Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, who swept the polls, now looks like a man under siege. A party so full of experienced political heads is not able to see the damage it suffers in the voters’ minds in, say, Delhi and Maharashtra, as they see the chief ministers they elected being hauled over the coals by Ashok Gehlot and Margaret Alva, the respective high command “controllers” of these states. Or when Gowda is allowed to reduce Dharam Singh into a helpless nobody.

The two national parties can ignore this remarkable shift in our power politics only at their peril, particularly when so many of their own coalition partners are talking of third and fourth fronts. The last thing India needs is a 55-party coalition, controlled by a council of six regional satraps the next time around.

Also read:It’s Modi vs 20 strong state leaders and there is no wave in the air


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