There was a time not long ago when the term “high command culture” was pejorative, something that political parties were loath to concede. Today, the term is history. No one ever refers to it. But it is very much around, albeit in a new avatar. Take the Karnataka elections. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) high command a.k.a Amit Shah is running the show, unabashedly.
BJP state president BS Yeddyurappa, who was once Karnataka’s party supremo, today looks like the pale image of the hardcore, tough politician he once projected himself as. In the 2008 elections, it was Yeddyurappa all the way through – from campaigning to winning the election. Today, he is completely overshadowed by the party’s mandarin from Delhi, Amit Shah, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi whose blitzkrieg is expected soon .
Recent events when Yeddyurappa’s son BY Vijayendra and close aide Shobha Karandlaje were denied tickets to contest the Assembly elections clearly showed who the real boss was. The former chief minister put up a brave front and claimed that it was his decision. But those following the events viewed that sceptically. There were reports that claimed he was livid and upset at being denied a say in the choice of the two candidates.
Probably reacting to this and in an attempt to retrieve lost ground, Yeddyurappa is attempting to defy Amit Shah by opening the doors of the BJP to controversial mining baron Janardhana Reddy. This, despite Shah clearly stating that the party should have nothing to do with Reddy. If the track record of a high command culture is anything to go by, Yeddyurappa may have to eventually rue his decision if he continues to defy Shah on this score.
The party is hoping to cross the finish line by projecting Prime Minister Narendra Modi rather than attempting to convince the electorate by pushing Karnataka-centric plans. In this respect, the BJP of today resembles the Congress of yore.
In the 70s the then Congress supremo Indira Gandhi reduced chief ministers of the various states ruled by the party into mere factotums. She handpicked each one for their loyalty to the ‘high command’. The process continued when Rajiv Gandhi later took over from her.
In fact, in 1990 when the then Karnataka chief minister Veerendra Patil was incapacitated by a stroke, Rajiv Gandhi casually announced his replacement by S Bangarappa at the Bangalore airport during a visit to the State. If this showed the power of the high command, it also antagonised a large section of people, particularly the Lingayats, who saw this as an affront to Patil, their leader.
The high command culture changed the political map in parts of India. The rise of the Telugu Desam Party and the emergence of film star NT Rama Rao was the direct result of what was then called “hurt Telugu pride” when the Congress central leadership replaced one chief minister after another in Andhra Pradesh.
The BJP, whether by design or accident, is attempting to emulate the Congress. It was the party’s central leadership that chose Yeddyurappa as its chief ministerial face and rode roughshod over dissidence that broke out following that decision.
But the Janata Dal (Secular), or even the earlier undivided version of the party, though national in name functioned more like a regional party with all party-related decisions confined to the state where it was either in power or the opposition. The Janata Dal’s strategy, selection of candidates and campaign plans were always chalked out in Karnataka. Ironically, the party has moved to the other extreme where its power centre is now confined to one family even if it is Bangalore-based.
The Congress under Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has however made the most interesting transition. From a party at the beck and call of the high command in Delhi, it has now for all practical purposes been reduced to the status of a regional party. But this may, paradoxically, work to its advantage as Siddaramaiah has had a free hand to strategise and run the campaign.
The Lingayat issue and the recourse to Kannada nationalism besides the myriad welfare programmes like the Indira canteens and various other schemes have all been largely the brainchild of Siddaramaiah and the state unit of the Congress.
Though national party president Rahul Gandhi is campaigning, key decisions including candidate selection for most seats appear to have been left to the discretion of the State chief minister.
The electorate will have to decide whether they would want to be ruled by the BJP high command or a regional satrap, with all the attendant advantages and disadvantages of either decision.
(The writer is an independent journalist based in Bangalore)