Is this the dawn of new Federal democracy in India ?

I have spent countless hours watching and reading about the drama around Modi’s elevation, Advani’s resignation and the heated backroom lobbying for creation of the Third Front. I will attempt to make sense of all this and try and piece together the big picture for you in this post. My base theory is that none of these are random events. What we are witnessing is probably a big movement and historic shift in the Indian democracy. But there is one ground rule you must observe. I know we all assume politicians are buffoons and they are foolish people. I would like you to suspend that notion for the purpose of this post and believe me when I say that Indian politicians are probably the savviest lot and blessed with very high intelligence. Trust me on this. I am an insider and have grown up surrounded by politicians and their ilk. Okay now that we are in agreement on the ground rule let me walk you through the story.

Part I of the story: The Congress party is a party with High Command structure. One person has absolute power and his or her word is the law. This has how it has been in the grand old party since the time Mrs Gandhi split the party and threw out tall leaders who formed the “Syndicate”. Those of you not familiar with the “Syndicate” should read this article from Sydney Morning Herald here to understand how this “High Command” structure emerged. Rajiv kept his mother’s tradition alive by easing out politicians like VP Singh, Pranab Mukherje etc and then trying very hard to make Chandrasekhar a puppet Prime Minister. Chandrasekhar did the most honorable thing that he could do by resigning and calling for elections. Rajiv never got a second term for history to judge his democratic credentials. Rajiv’s widow Sonia had a slow but a very well planned rise in Congress. She has been able to further consolidate the power and now “High Command” structure is deeply entrenched. As you read this she is transitioning this power to her son Rahul who seems to be a reluctant inheritor. I am not sure whether he is really a reluctant inheritor or it is a part of a very well thought out long term strategy. More on Rahul’s transition strategy later. Let’s look at the other pieces.

Part II of the story: RSS is a party with some deep thinkers blessed with great intellectual horse power who are quick to grasp the changing political landscape and the mood of the masses. RSS realizes that they have a single window of opportunity to stop the transition of power from the mother to the son in the Grand old party and demolishing the “High Command structure”. But they have spent most of their time devising a sustainable long term strategy to do this. They are not looking at 2014 elections alone but want to put in place a long term plan. There are many inheritors to the legacy of the “High Command” structure. The only way to cut the roots of the “High Command” structure is to put a long term plan in place. While corruption can be a potent pillar for 2014 it cannot be a long term strategy. This is where RSS differs deeply with Advani. Advani feels that corruption should be the main agenda in the 2014 elections. Not really says RSS. I will come back to the RSS strategy after I have laid out the other pieces.

Part III of the story: When Indian constitution was written, Mr BR Amedkar in his wisdom created a Federal system of Government. Read more about Federalism here. This system assumed powerful leaders at both Central and State level sharing duties and obligations. This federal system was first tampered with in 1975 during the National Emergency via an amendment in the constitution in Feb 1976. The amendment allowed the central government to dispatch and deploy its Central Armed Police forces without the permission of or consultation with the states. This was a very controversial and unpopular decision. After the Emergency the constitution was again amended in December 1978. The central Govt again needed to ask permission of the state govt to deploy central Police forces. Since then the Centre and State have co-existed in an atmosphere of uneasy peace. This tension escalates whenever the ruling party in the centre and the state are in conflict. The Federal structure was once again challenged when Kalyan Singh’s Govt in UP was dismissed by then governor Romesh Bhandari and put under President’s rule. See the various instances under which states have been put under President’s rule here. Congress cut the legs of its regional leaders to consolidate power in the “High Command” creating a vacuum in leadership at regional level. In this vacuum stepped very powerful leaders like Mamta, Nitish, Jaya, Maya, Mulayam, Naveen Patnaik etc. RSS sensed the Congress strategy very early and they realized that their cadre based politics was much more suited to creating powerful local leaders. They went to work in the 70s and 80s and out of RSS’s efforts came leaders like Modi, Raman Singh, Uma Bharti, Kalyan Singh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Rajnath Singh, Govindacharya and the others. All the regional leaders created by BJP cut their teeth by becoming Chief Minister of their states. So far so good. Part I of the plan proved to be moderately successful for RSS. While RSS was busy grooming future regional leaders, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Advani kept the Hindutva flag flying high and even managed to keep Congress out of power for many years. Let’s look at the remaining pieces of the story.

Part IV of the story: While Atal Bihari and Advani gave the much needed time to RSS neither of these leaders was central to their long term strategy. The regional leaders who rose out of the RSS cadre were. With the elevation of Modi last week and his projection as the possible PM candidate, RSS is implementing Part II of the strategy. The crux of Part II of the strategy is to have a regional leader rise to become the PM. This regional leader then makes the necessary changes to devolve more power to the states making them more autonomous. This act will further strengthen the federal structure of Indian democracy. With greater devolution of power to the state there is even a greater chance of really great local leaders emerging. The federal structure then poses a really strong challenge to the “High command” structure of Congress. Now Congress has to respond to the pieces on the chess board laid out by RSS. For last forty years the pieces on the Chess Board has been laid out by the “High Command”. Now RSS has set the game and it could be a fascinating match for the next few decades. Modi is only a vehicle for RSS to implement Part II of the strategy. Congress has much more to worry about than Modi. Their entire premise of “High Command” structure is being challenged by RSS. So what will Congress and more importantly what will Rahul do? But before that let’s quickly look at what Nitish, Mulayam, Mamta and Naveen Patnaik will do?

Part V of the story: The regional leaders like Laloo, Nitish, Mamta have had a good ride for the last two decades. They have to thank the Congress leadership for this and leaders like Laloo have shown their gratitude from time to time. However the regional leaders are incredibly intelligent and blessed with the unique ability to read the intentions of both Congress and BJP. That is how they have survived. In the last few years Congress has not given them much to worry. That is why Laloo and Mamata have had political alliances with Congress. It is the RSS that makes them really worried. They know that RSS is capable of identifying potential local leaders and grooming and mentoring them. The emergence of powerful local leaders in BJP is the kiss of death of them. They have to do whatever they can to stop Modi from becoming the PM. Hence they are in hectic backroom conversations to create the so called 3rd Front. However I am skeptical of them ever being able to agree on a PM candidate. The Congress leadership will run circles around them and whoever becomes the PM from the 3rd front may find himself in the same situation as Chandrasekhar found himself when Rajiv supported his Govt in Nov 1990.

Rahul’s strategy and options

So now let’s look at what Rahul and Congress will do. Rahul understands the High Command structure that his Grandmother and Father put in place. I am not sure whether he is thankful to them or feels he has been handed over a flawed legacy. Rahul’s articulates and voices this confusion when he alternates between threatening to become like his Grandmother while chiding his errant seniors and then speaks passionately about devolving power to local bodies in front of Industry leaders at CII. In the CII speech he very significantly said that no one person can solve all the problems of this nation. With this statement he attacked the foundation of the “High Command” structure. He is very unsure of what path to take. I am sure he understands that RSS is putting a Federal democracy structure in place to challenge the High Command structure of Congress. The dilemma that Rahul faces is whether he should fight RSS’s fire with fire i.e with a decentralized power structure in Congress or should he pursue the policies laid out by his Grandmother 40 years ago. And that is a million dollar dilemma. There are two likely outcomes:

Outcome I: Modi becomes the PM and devolves power to the states and shatters the High command structure of Congress. This will force Rahul to also honor the Federal structure by decentralizing power. He might even create a new party after his name of which he will be a lifetime Chairman and founder.

Outcome II: Nitish, Mulayam or Mamta become the PM from the 3rd Front with support from Congress. Congress will pull this Govt down before it’s full term and call for elections again and come back to power. This will be circa 1991 all over again.

What really happens and what Rahul will do will depend on the outcome of 2014 elections. If Modi become the PM then he will be forced to demolish the “High Command” structure by establishing a new party in his name of which he will be a lifetime founder and mentor. If 3rd front comes to power then he will take a leaf out of his father’s book and further consolidate the power in “High Command” structure. As I said right at the beginning what we are witnessing is a massive transition in the history of Indian democracy. As they say in Urdu “Which way the camel will finally sit” will be decided by the Indian voters. Only time will tell whether Indian voters will choose “Federal democracy” or they will choose “High Command” structure.

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