Arshad Shaikh examines how political parties in India make a mockery of inner party democracy by turning the post of Chief Minister into a game of musical chairs; Indian polity is belittled and the concept of ‘supreme’ leader is perpetuated giving rise to sycophancy and the surrender to ‘totalitarianism’

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) changed 5 of its Chief Ministers in the last 7 months. A ‘change of guard’ is not taboo for political parties but the high-handed manner in which the CMs are being shown the door is what sparked the debate about how the BJP that once called itself ‘the party with a difference’ was adopting the ‘high command’ culture associated with the Indian National Congress (INC).

The changes started with the BJP appointing Himanta Biswa Sarma as CM of Assam after it won the elections in May. This happened despite the outgoing CM Sarbananda Sonowal completing his full term as CM between 2016 and 2021 and leading the party back to power in the state elections held in Mar-Apr this year.

Trivendra Singh Rawat was appointed CM of Uttarakhand after the BJP grabbed power from the Congress in 2017. Elections are due in the state in February 2022. Trivendra resigned as CM in March 2021, citing a ‘collective decision’ made by the party and was replaced with Tirath Singh Rawat who remained in office for just 116 days. He made way for Pushkar Singh Dhami in July.

Karnataka also witnessed a change of ‘captaincy’ when 78-year old BS Yediurappa resigned and in came Basavaraj Bommai who will lead the state into the next elections in 2023. The reason touted in the media by BJP is that Yediurappa had crossed ‘75’, which is the unofficial retirement age for BJP ministers.

Vijay Rupani served as Gujarat Chief Minister between 2016 and 2021. He assumed power before the elections in 2017 and led the BJP to victory. He resigned just 14 months before the end of his term. Rupani was replaced by Bhupendra Patel. No official reason is available for Rupani’s exit. Reports suggest that Patel’s Cabinet of 24 Ministers is newly minted and it does not contain a single minister from Rupani’s Cabinet.

The latest casualty in the game of musical chairs for the post of CM is Captain Amrinder Singh of Congress-ruled Punjab. He was shown the exit door and made way for Charanjit Singh Channi. There is speculation that the Chief Ministerial chairs in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Tripura have become ‘hot seats’ and may likely see new faces very soon.

THE ‘HIGH COMMAND’ CULTURE

In almost all the above cases, the off-the-record standard operating procedure (SOP) appears to have the following steps. The incumbent CM is summoned to Delhi to meet the party high command. He is told clearly that a decision has been taken for his removal. The guardian minister for the state or observer is dispatched to the state capital where he meets various party members and ministers to gauge the ‘mood’ of the MLAs. The decision about the new CM is then taken by the ‘supreme’ leader/high command and conveyed through the party hierarchy to the MLAs who vote unanimously in favour of the designated candidate in the meeting of the Legislative party.

Why is this process a subterfuge about inner party democracy? First, the election of a new CM in the legislative party meeting becomes a mere formality as the MLAs usually vote for a new face unanimously. The name is already decided in New Delhi. The guardians of democracy forget to practise it in their own backyard. Nobody is permitted to vote according to his/her conscience. An ‘actual’ election in which MLAs vote by secret ballot for the candidate that they deem most appropriate for the CM’s position seems to have all but disappeared. Democracy is sacrificed at the altar of ‘party discipline’ and loyalty towards ‘the leader’. The culture of MLAs and MPs voluntarily ‘authorising’ the party ‘high command’ to take any decision regarding leadership is a tacit acceptance that their status as an elected representative of the people is not more than that of an indigent subject before a mighty emperor or empress.

NO WALK, ONLY TALK

A pertinent observation is that the scope of the Election Commission of India is limited to the conduct of elections only. It does not have any say in the regulation of intraparty elections. This is very strange since the state ensures proper democratic process even in the election of the governing bodies to RWAs (Resident Welfare Associations) and Cooperative Housing Societies.

The problem with almost all national political parties is that the procedure they have adopted to select their office-bearers including their party presidents comes through the process of nomination or selection rather than election. Electoral defeats have no bearing on the validity of their leadership. A cult of the personality is assiduously built through flattery and giving them a position sans accountability. Allegiance to the person becomes equivalent to allegiance to the party. All major party decisions are taken behind closed doors in utmost secrecy and analyses about decisions are left to media-speculation and not transparent media briefings.

There is a lot of talk about representing 1.35 billion people but there is no allowance to even a hundred odd MLAs to elect their own leader for the post of CM. This is quite damaging to the polity as a narrow and concentrated nucleus of power becomes prone to parochial interests, weakens the state units of the party, prevents the rise of meritocracy and the national agenda is hijacked by a few oligarchs relegating genuine requirements of the state to the background.

THERE SHOULD BE NO COMPULSION

Ayat 256 of Surah Baqarah of the Holy Qur’ān says, “There is no compulsion in Deen (religion). The Rushd (right way) stands clearly distinguished from the wrong. Hence, he who rejects the Taghut (evil ones) and believes in Allah has indeed taken hold of the firm, unbreakable handle”. The literal meaning of Taghut means anyone who exceeds his legitimate limits. In the Qur’ānic terminology, it refers to the one who arrogates to himself godhead and lordship. The person not only rebels against God but also imposes his own will on people. It is the most heinous stage of disobedience and rebellion against God after Fisq (transgression – it is more of a lapse) and Kufr (infidelity – principled rejection). Thus, none can claim to be a true believer in God unless the authority of such a Taghut (evil one) is rejected. This ayat of the Qur’ān lays the foundation of personal liberty and individual freedom in the matter of religion and personal faith.

Islam completely rejects the idea of forcibly imposing one’s ideas and beliefs over others. From this verse also emanates the concept of the inalienable democratic right to vote freely or declare Bay‘ah (pledge of allegiance) to a leader. The maternal grandson of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ – Husain bin Ali –  sacrificed his life and those of his family members in Karbala to protect this right and laid the foundations of freedom –  a principle that is the cornerstone of any healthy democracy.

It might appear unbelievable to many but even today it is not possible for any member of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (a socio-religious organisation of India) to propose his/her own candidature for any position nor is canvassing allowed in favour of someone else. Jamaat has been holding elections for all its office-bearers, including their President in the most democratic way possible. If inner party democracy is buried, the resurrection of autocracy is not far away.

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