The outgoing Karnataka chief minister, B.S. Yeddyurappa, isn’t the first head of government to be dethroned by a quasi-judicial stricture. Nor, for that matter, is he likely to be the last victim of what can best be described as either a political accident or a constitutional coup. The history of independent India is replete with examples of both chief ministers and prime ministers who have been compelled, for one reason or another, to relinquish office mid-stream.
The phenomenon is hardly unique. However, what is disturbing, as this week’s events in Karnataka indicate, is the monotonous regularity of the succession being mired in unseemly controversy. Both the Constitution and political practice suggest that the head of an elected government must enjoy the confidence of a majority of legislators. On paper, there is no violation of this principle and the person chosen or elected to assume charge invariably secures the ‘unanimous’ endorsement of the majority party legislators. Yet, it is the process of selection that invariably turns out to be contentious and, more often than not, contains the seeds of future inner-party discord and, occasionally, a formal split.
The reasons for this unhappy state of affairs are obvious. Despite more than six decades as a functioning democracy, the Indian political system is yet to evolve a standard procedure for either the election of the head of government or the head of a political party.
In the case of the Congress, a certain template procedure has come to be accepted. Upon a vacancy being notified, the central leadership of the party nominates two central observers to consult the party legislators about their preference. The consultation takes place behind closed doors and once the process is complete, the legislature party meets and passes a resolution authorizing the party president to nominate a leader. The party president or the so-called high command is expected to factor in the wishes of the legislators when exercising its choice. If Delhi plays by the book, the succession is smoothly uneventful. However, as often happens, if the central leadership is hell-bent on imposing either an ‘outsider’ or someone who doesn’t have majority backing, the selection process becomes a nomination rather than an election.
In recent times, the Congress had to jettison democratic principles in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. In Andhra Pradesh, the mood among Congress members of the legislative assembly after Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy’s death in a helicopter crash was resoundingly in favour of his son, Jaganmohan Reddy. Unfortunately for the Reddy family, the idea of a regional dynasty in Andhra Pradesh was looked upon with disfavour by the central Congress stalwarts. To them, the party had room for just one national dynasty presiding over sub-regional feudatories. In his lifetime, YSR had successfully made the transition from being just another chief minister (on the lines of, say, Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan and Tarun Gogoi in Assam) to becoming a resourceful regional satrap. The Congress high command didn’t want to risk making YSR’s legacy a matter of inheritance. It subverted the will of the members of the legislative assembly by imposing a central veto on Jagan’s claim to his father’s job. The consequences of derailing the democratic will (however flawed it may have been) have not been happy for the Congress. Andhra Pradesh seems poised to slip out of the party’s political control.
In Maharashtra, the political self-destruction of, first, Vilasrao Deshmukh and, subsequently, Ashok Chavan, prompted the Congress high command to deploy a paratrooper from the Centre to contain the damage. Prithviraj Chavan was highly rated in Delhi for both his integrity and sobriety. Unfortunately, he had no toehold in the murky regional politics of Maharashtra and, consequently, the MLAs had to be bulldozed into accepting Delhi’s man in Mumbai. The net result of this contrived injection of integrity into the Congress system may, however, not prove rewarding for the party. Successful politics needs principle to be blended with political management. It is now becoming increasingly clear that the new chief minister doesn’t have the political muscle to force through tough decisions. The result is a near-paralysed administration.
The Congress, particularly under Indira Gandhi, acquired a measure of disrepute by emasculating regional leaders — a phenomenon that proved detrimental to the party’s long-term health. The Bharatiya Janata Party began life as an over-centralized party with decision-making firmly vested with the national president, assisted by a few swayamsevaks on deputation from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh headquarters in Nagpur. However, as the party enlarged its social base and came to control state governments, the importance of strong regional leaders was recognized — but very grudgingly.
In Karnataka, the party owed its post-1990 growth to the ability of local leaders such as Yeddyurappa to link a national pro-Hindu sentiment to caste-based farmer movements. By the time the BJP won a majority on its own in 2007, Yeddyurappa had elevated himself to the level of an unchallenged regional leader — on a par with Narendra Modi and Vasundhara Raje. When he was removed by a crusading Lokayukta last week, he enjoyed the support of at least 75 of the BJP’s 120 MLAs. Yeddyurappa’s political clout should have ensured that the national leadership was appreciative of his determination to both clear his name — it is said that there is a strong case for the high court setting aside the Lokayukta report on technical grounds — and have a say in the selection of his successor. It is a commentary on the warped priorities of a section of the central leadership that it decided this was the moment to try and impose its direct control over Karnataka. The plan never had much of a chance of success and good sense finally prevailed. However, in encouraging the discredited Reddy brothers of Bellary to put their resources behind an anti-Yeddyurappa campaign, the BJP vitiated the atmosphere to such an extent that a future split in the party is a real possibility. This situation would never have arisen had the BJP made it clear from the outset that the new leader would be elected on the strength of majority support of MLAs.
It was the overweening desire to emulate the worst of the Congress’s high command structure that led to the rupture with the former Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Kalyan Singh, in 2000 and the breakaway of Babulal Marandi to form the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha in 2006. The possibility of Vasundhara Raje breaking away to form a regional party also became a real possibility two years ago, when she was unilaterally removed as leader of the Opposition in the Rajasthan assembly despite having the resounding support of a majority of BJP MLAs.
In Uttarakhand, B.C. Khanduri was peremptorily removed as chief minister after the party’s dismal performance in the 2009 Lok Sabha poll. However, the selection of a nonentity as his successor suggested the national party’s dread of a strong regional leader. With a pushover at the helm, the BJP national leadership has had a ball in Uttarakhand for the past two years — lots of junkets and many jobs for the boys. Politics was sacrificed at the altar of freeloading. All indications are that the BJP will be routed in next year’s state polls.
Common sense would suggest that while a political party draws solace from inspirational leadership at the top, it derives its muscle from the grassroots and the regions. Yet, it is a mystery why, despite strong empirical evidence to the contrary, the leaderships of both India’s national parties are so fearful of rooted politicians. Admittedly, the possibilities of distortion arising from over-zealous localism can never be discounted but democracy is never an uncluttered process.