Returning to Bangalore after a fortnight on the road, I discovered that while I was away my Chief Minister had acquired a new wardrobe. I knew B. S. Yediyurappa to dress always in white trousers and white shirts, but now, on hoardings that peppered the highway from the aiport into town, I saw him clad in a grey suit with pink tie, advertising his government’s achievements (real and imagined) in economic and social development. The transformation was more than sartorial. Where posters of a few months ago had only his face, with those of national BJP leaders (say Vajpayee, Advani, Gadkari) alongside, the pictures now featured him alone, confidently striding towards the viewer.
I had flown into Bangalore from Ahmedabad, but had I come in from elsewhere in the country I would have reached the same conclusion—namely, that Mr. Yediyurappa had taken Mr Narendra Modi as his role model. That man had also lately exchanged his kurta for a business suit; more substantively, that man sought to present himself as the face of Gujarat, indeed, as Gujarat itself. Having domesticated the challenge of the Reddy brothers, having waited out the press revelations of his own land dealings, Mr Yediyurappa was now in a position to represent himself as, so to say, Karnataka personified.
Mr Modi’s example is obvious, but Mr Yediyurappa may also have been influenced, at one remove, by the self-positioning of two other Chief Ministers of his party, Shivraj Singh Chauhan in Madhya Pradesh and Raman Singh in Chattisgarh. Like Mr Modi, they too do not currently face any serious challenge within their party or outside it. They control the administration completely, and shape the public debate within their state in a manner of their choosing.
These four BJP Chief Ministers seek to be authoritative. So too do some Chief Ministers from other parties, such as Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh, Nitish Kumar in Bihar, and Pawan Chamling in Sikkim. Remarkably, there is not a single Chief Minister from India’s greatest and oldest party who can be thought of in these terms, as being, without question, the unchallenged leader of his or her state. Why is this so? And what are its consequences?
The answer to the first question is evident—it is because the High Command in Delhi decides who shall be its leader (or, more accurately perhaps, its follower) in the different states of the Union. As for the consequences, these are manifest in the steady decline of the Congress in parts of India where it once was the natural party of rule. Who, twenty years ago, could have thought that the Congress would be in such a pathetic state in Karnataka? Or in Gujarat? Or, perhaps especially, in Madhya Pradesh?
To be sure, the BJP leaders I mentioned have each led deeply flawed administrations. Yediyurappa’s Government has perhaps been the most corrupt ever seen in Karnataka. Narendra Modi cannot escape the stigma of having failed to stop, and arguably even encouraged, the riots of 2002. Raman Singh has promoted a vigilante group that has destroyed an entire district and consolidated the Naxalites. Shivraj Singh Chauhan has, under the influence of the RSS, interfered with school and college curricula, introducing poisonous ideas that are antithetical to the pluralism enshrined in the Indian Constitution.
There is also a thin line between being authoritative and being authoritararian, a line that both Mayawati and Narendra Modi (to name no others) have crossed from time to time. Still, there is no gainsaying the fact that the absence of vigorous, credible, state-level leaders has damaged the Congress in very many states of the Union. Whereas the BJP and other parties clearly project their Chief Ministerial candidate before an election, the Congress waits for the results to come in before making its choice clear. Its recent reverses in Karnataka, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and other states suggest that this strategy is leading to a widespread disenchantment with the party.
Things were once otherwise. In Jawaharlal Nehru’s time, the Congress had strong, capable, and very focused Chief Ministers—among them S. Nijalingappa in Karnataka (then known as Mysore), K. Kamaraj in Tamil Nadu (then Madras), B. C. Roy in West Bengal, and Y. B. Chavan in Maharashtra. They successfully won elections, and ran governments. Now, in states like Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh, there is no one, identifiable, Congress leader. Five or six senior men jostle for position, their precedence varying from month to month depending on the winks and nods of the High Command. In other states the situation is even more dire. There is thus not a single Congress leader of substance in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu or West Bengal, not a single leader who can be relied upon even to safely and regularly win his or her own seat, still less to canvass successfully for other Congress candidates.
The personal charisma of the Nehru-Gandhi family is itself fading; in any case, it cannot compensate for the decline of substantive leadership at the provincial level. In the aftermath of the military victory of 1971, Indira Gandhi could win state elections across India and then anoint Chief Ministers of her choice. Between 1998 and 2006, when she was perceived as a selfless woman who had come out of seclusion to revive the party and serve her country, Sonia Gandhi could also influence the outcome of state elections in her party’s favour. Those times are now past. A federal polity demands that parties be so structured that state-level leaders emerge from below, rather than be imposed from above.