The BJP’s problem: Too much federalism hurts

The Yeddyurappa affair brings to the fore the problem Central leaderships face: to win regionally, they need strong leaders. But strong leaders will not follow orders easily.

hidden August 03, 2011 17:44:52 IST
The BJP’s problem: Too much federalism hurts

By Jai Mrug

Exactly 16 years ago, the BJP high command was stunned by something it did not expect from a swayamsevak-driven party. A former pracharak was leading a rebellion, having hijacked more than a third of the party’s MLAs (46 to be precise) to Khajuraho (hence, dubbed 'Khajurias').

Shankarsinh Vaghela was protesting against what he and his sympathisers perceived to be the monopolisation of the state administration by the faction aligned to Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel.

It was a first for the party. It took the intervention of none other than former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to rein in the leader of the Khajurias and involved sacrificing the incumbent CM and the now iconic Narendra Modi, who had to quit as general secretary in charge of the state.

The BJPs problem Too much federalism hurts

Very few states are now ruled by nominees of the Centre. AFP Photo

One of the virtues of political branding is the delivery of handsome verdicts at the hustings by focusing on the attributes of one leader as CEO who would be the ambrosia for all ills. A byproduct of this mechanism is the development of high-profile regional leaders and several dwarfs whose ambitions are capped once and for all.

Often the CEOs themselves go through a musical chairs game as not all deliver on expectations of the high command. This is a challenge every national party must now deal with in the era of increasing federalisation.

The BJP is no different. In some cases, such as Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the party has succeeded in tiding over these challenges and is still putting up a creditable performance at the hustings. In states such as Uttar Pradesh, the containment and management of regional leaders has left the party in a state of terminal decline.

The BJPs problem Too much federalism hurts

Jai Mrug

However, the opposite solution — converting the party into a sole proprietary concern such as in Gujarat — has provided a largely dissent-free administration but at the cost of there being no second line of leadership.

The dissent — and consequently its assimilation – is part of a maturing democratic institution. While Congress leaders are well-rehearsed in the art of musical chairs, this is counter-balanced by an overbearing, but charismatic, Central leadership. It makes up for the lack of a united regional leadership. The lack of federalisation is both a strength and a weakness of the Congress party.

However, most other parties that aspire to be national have to be federalised enough to have strong regional leaders who can deliver the states in a national election. Importantly, they have to manage the dichotomy of the co-existence of a strong regional leadership along with an ambitious central leadership.

Often a strong regional leadership means that the central leadership is reduced to a mere coordination and logistics support agency. This is exactly what BS Yeddyurappa has reminded the BJP leaders about on 29 July. The timing of his resignation is his to choose, and his successor, too, has his stamp. At the end of the day, Yeddyurappa commands the support of more than half his MLAs and three-quarters of his MPs.

In a milieu where secular developmental goals have not yet been established as the norm, there is no alternative but to depend on caste strongmen, regional leaders and/or strong corporate interests to guide the business of government formation. That is exactly the situation that Nitin Gadkari, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj & Co find themselves embroiled in today.

A true democracy would, in many ways, fail to deliver as dissent and debate would atrophy the muscles of the ruling dispensation. It also is exactly the problem the Congress party faces with a Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh.

Very few states are now ruled by nominees of the Centre. Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala are typical examples. One manifestation of the same is going to be the emergence of regional parties. Today, states accounting for a whopping 242 seats, almost 40 percent of the Lok Sabha, are either ruled by regional parties or are led by coalitions headed by regional parties.

The other manifestation is certainly the emergence of strong regional players within national parties, who have federalised the nature of every transaction with hard bargains. In this scenario, they portray Central leaders as mere parasites looking to the states to raise funds. But greater federalisation of political parties is the shape of things to come.

In the late nineties and the early part of the previous decade, leaders like Shankarsinh Vaghela and Uma Bharati were seen as deviants. However, such outbursts should surprise none. They should now be seen as the rule and not the exception.

More than ever before, national parties will realise virtue in having regional leaders who are often fettered or deliberately distracted by internecine quarrels with other regional satraps within the same party.

It could be a hard lesson for the BJP to learn. To be as large as the Congress, and then be managed, you need to have the same degree of randomness within and not less. You have to be another party of differences, though you would also want it to be a party with a difference. It’s the same process for every caterpillar that morphs into a butterfly.

Jai Mrug is a political commentator and a close watcher of the election scene in India

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