January 22, 2023
Praveen Chakravarty is a Congressman curious about correlations, causes & consequences @pravchak. Credit: DH Illustration
On a flight recently, I ran into a BJP state minister and a member of its National Executive. He was in the Congress party before moving to the BJP, so I knew him well. I asked him about his new party to which he remarked how the BJP high command exercises extreme control over political activities in each state and that even the design of a poster for a public meeting of a local state leader has to come from Delhi. He expressed both awe and anguish at this culture. Awe because he thought it made the party very efficient, and anguish because his freedoms were completely curtailed.
On the same day, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was asked in a press conference for his opinion on the decision of the new Congress government in Himachal Pradesh to implement the old pension scheme. Rahul responded that the Congress leadership in each state is free to implement the decisions they deem appropriate for their state and take responsibility for the consequences.
It is no secret that organisational efficiency is the hallmark of the modern BJP, which is in direct contrast to the disorganised nature of the Congress party. The BJP’s superior organisational efficiency is a direct function of its tight centralisation, while the Congress’ seemingly chaotic character is an outcome of its increasingly decentralised culture.
Centralisation and control are core beliefs and traits of leaders and organisations. It is foolhardy to expect a leader who controls and commands the party organisation through diktats to be a federalist in his economic thought and allow markets to dictate policy. Many erudite economist friends that advocate strongly for increased federalism in the country and freedom for state and local governments to draft policy ironically also ask me in the same breath –“Why can’t the Congress party command its Chief Ministers in states where the party is in power to implement a certain policy or to direct its state units to not voice internal dissent in public!”, oblivious to the contradiction in their political and economic principles. If a party’s culture is unwilling or unable to command and control its state units, then how can the same party dictate economic policy from Delhi to all its Chief Ministers? To be clear, both the BJP and the Congress have had different phases of command-and-control culture in their histories. However, this column is not about the BJP versus Congress’ organisational philosophy but about how a ruling political party’s governance style is emblematic of its internal party culture and the two cannot function in separate silos, as mistakenly perceived or wishfully desired.
Efficiency and decentralisation tug at each other and present a trade-off. An organisation’s — political or otherwise — primary objective is its efficient functioning, and hence there is a temptation to veer towards centralisation. But heavy centralisation also subliminally dictates uniformity and discourages diversity, which can prove harmful in the long run. This is true for both political parties and nations. If a political party believes in dictating the design of a poster for a state leader’s election campaign, then that party will also strongly believe in a ‘one nation, one policy’ when it governs the nation. Praising the former for its efficiency but criticising the latter for command-and-control is naïve and suffers from cognitive dissonance.
This column has in the past highlighted India’s extreme social, economic and political divergence among its states, in addition to its well-known linguistic and cultural diversity. The gap among states is now so large that India is conceptually no longer one nation but a union of 36 states and territories. It then follows that India’s politics can also not be ‘national’ but has to be a ‘union of states’ politics. If we accept this, then the idea of a national political party being controlled by a Delhi high command sounds anachronistic in today’s India.
Yet, it is the BJP’s tightly controlled and centralised style of functioning and electioneering that makes it an efficient and successful party. The BJP’s heavily centralised activities of information gathering, financing, decision-making and messaging has reaped tremendous electoral success, tempting other political parties to mimic this style. But this style cannot lend itself well to all parties, since it depends on the leadership’s core beliefs and personality traits. Either they believe in a tight, centralised high command or in a decentralised, federalist culture. I acknowledge that this need not be a strict binary or mutually exclusive and can be more nuanced, such as being centralisers in certain aspects and decentralisers in certain other areas. But a leader of a political party is either a ‘control freak’ or s/he is not, and there are no nuances in this core trait. And this leadership trait defines their political party’s organisational philosophy. And their organisational philosophy defines how the party will govern the nation when it comes to power.
If a tight, top-down controlled culture brings huge efficiency gains and yields electoral success that is lauded by all, then it is the same culture that will also define policymaking for the nation. There should be no surprise that a barrage of ‘one nation, one language’, ‘one nation, one tax’, ‘one nation, one election’, ‘one nation, one religion’, ‘one nation, one education’ is being inflicted on our nation because that is the defining trait the country voted for. Praising such a trait in electioneering but criticising it in governance is both foolish and hypocritical. The political theorist Daniel Bell argued in ‘The China Model’ that China’s stupendous success is due largely to the centralised and efficient functioning of the Organisation Department of the Chinese Communist Party. How a ruling party is run internally dictates how the nation is governed.