What recent cabinet reshuffles by BJP and Congress reveal about state of parliamentary democracy

Suhas Palshikar writes: The message is chillingly pessimistic: They tell us that parties hope to win elections on contingent optics, tentative accommodations and last-minute shows of course correction rather than on the basis of policies, programmes or performance.

If one wants instances of callous treatment of the electorate and parliamentary democracy, there is no need to look far. The BJP and the Congress have been guilty of engineering such instances more recently, and that too, in a similar fashion: Both the parties (others are no exception) have taken recourse to the farcical instrument of “cabinet reshuffle”, including change of leadership. The BJP did it in Karnataka, Uttarakhand and UP besides going for a wholesale makeover in Gujarat, while the Congress has done this in Punjab. Some see these as smart moves to ward off the unpopularity of incumbents and clever use of the caste calculus. To be sure, that is how these developments are touted by the parties concerned.

The romanticising of the tactics of the two parties is one reason these moves are not read appropriately and discussed. But it is also possible that we have stopped worrying about matters of principle and long-term implications, and have become hardened realists who do not worry about norms and nuance. Nevertheless, it is worth noting some of the nagging issues these political moves involve.

One such issue is the relation between state units and the central leadership. Both the Congress and BJP have adopted a high command structure of decision making. In the BJP’s case, the authority of the high command stems from its ability to win elections. All office holders are obligated to the high command on account of this. Moreover, the BJP’s high command resides outside of party headquarters — it would be a bit of a political comedy to believe that the party president and/or general secretaries constitute the high command. That de facto high command has created an aura of invincibility around itself. It has won not only two parliamentary elections in a row but a string of decent performances in state elections are also attributed to it. This has produced the centralisation of authority that the party imitates from the Congress of the Indira era. But as in the Yeddyurappa episode, tensions between the high command and self-made state leaders are bound to become a problem for the party.

The case of the Congress is more pathetic. The party continues to adopt the formula of “high control despite a hollow high command”. Ever since Sonia Gandhi assumed leadership, the high command has been an enigma. Sonia has lacked the drive and authority of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. Some leaders enjoyed high status in her name. Rahul Gandhi took the leadership mantle far too seriously and took on regional leaders. Both Sonia and Rahul, because of their limitations, had an excellent opportunity to federalise the party. But they have been inconsistent in their approach and have given mixed signals to ambitious state leaders. Long ago, this caused the exit of Sharad Pawar and Mamata Banerjee. Rahul seems set on the same path.

The high command culture brings both the parties almost on par with many state parties that are indispensably dependent on one key leader. Apart from the centralisation of all-India organisations and the inevitable setback to federalisation of working of the party, this has implications for the long-standing issue of intra-party democracy. Trivendra Singh Rawat and Tirath Singh Rawat may have been less than popular just as Vijay Rupani in Gujarat and Amarinder Singh in Punjab. But barring the formality of the legislative party choosing a new leader, the legislative wings of the ruling parties have had no role to play in their appointment. No party seems to have the practice of regular meetings of legislators. In other words, elected members simply do not matter. The erosion of the institution called legislative party, along with the rejection of the cabinet form of government, has produced a monarchical office of the prime minister at the Centre and reduced chief ministers to functionaries occupying office during the pleasure of the party high command.

In the process, the formal and informal routes through which the organisation counterbalances leadership and the state units counterbalance the national leadership have all been lost. So, it is not only the high command culture but an effective violation of parliamentary norms that is on display. This is not to say that such deterioration is happening only now, but it is interesting that in the era of a second dominant-party system, both the newly dominant party and the erstwhile dominant party converge on this point of corroding internal democracy and parliamentary procedure.

The other issue that these developments have flagged is that of caste dynamics. At one level, both parties seem to have surrendered to the gimmick of caste-based calculations. In each case, a clever caste motif has been invented and advertised. Replacing a Lingayat by a Lingayat, bringing in Patel power with a powerless Patel leader, ushering in a Dalit chief minister only for five months without a promise of giving the community the leadership of the state in future too, and suddenly engaging with caste arithmetic in a state that is touted as the best-governed state of the country, are all signs of cynical symbolism. It may be argued that politics is as much about tokens as it is about substance. But when tokens are all that the parties have to offer, tokenism smacks of empty promises and worse, instrumental use of party members belonging to various castes.

Here too, there are striking parallels between the two parties. Both are often confused about the stand to be taken on the caste question. The BJP (the RSS even more so) often decries caste calculations but since his 2014 campaign, Modi has unequivocally advertised that the party cares for the OBCs and that he himself personifies the party’s concern and affection toward the backward classes. And yet, both in Karnataka and now in Gujarat, it has yielded to regionally dominant castes. While this signifies an interesting element of being alert to state-level compulsions despite the existence of the high and mighty as top leaders of the party, it also indicates the willingness of the party to use caste as a token. The Congress since Rajiv’s time has been at a loss on the caste question and has failed to accommodate the aspirations of backward castes adequately. Now, in addition to the confusion over its Hindu identity, the party seems to have slipped further in the matter of balancing aspirations of various castes and communities.

Finally, all party tactics lead to electoral considerations. If the above moves too are seen from that prism, they give a chillingly pessimistic message. They tell us that parties hope to win elections on contingent optics, tentative accommodations and last-minute shows of course correction rather than on the basis of policies, programmes or performance.

This column first appeared in the print edition on September 30, 2021 under the title ‘Message from the shuffle’. The writer, based in Pune, taught political science and is chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics

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