The end of the high command

Author - Baijayant 'Jay' Panda

Posted on - 14 March 2012

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This article was published on 'The Indian Express' on 14th March 2012.





Why top-down edicts from the Centre dont work in our increasingly participatory,state-led politics

Political scientist Francis Fukuyama,in his authoritative book The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution,boils it down to three essential components that modern nation-states need for sustained success: a strong state; its subordination to a rule of law; and the government’s accountability to its citizens.

Fukuyama observes that China scores on the first count,while India has an edge in the latter two. China’s strong state has given it the ability to surge ahead with mega infrastructural projects,while India struggles far behind. He concludes that China’s “strong state,weak society” and India’s “weak state,strong society” models have coexisted for millennia,which is why emperor Qin Shi Huang could build the Great Wall,while the legacy of his contemporary emperor Ashoka was entirely different.

Many Indians pine for a China-like strong state,and indeed it had seemed possible in the past. For four decades after Independence,India had charismatic prime ministers like Jawaharlal Nehru,Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi; they led a Congress party that had absolute majorities in Parliament as well as a large number of state legislatures; and the political culture that evolved,particularly during Indira and Rajiv Gandhi’s tenures,concentrated power in the so-called high command. Strong Central leaderships got used to treating regional ones with scant respect.

But it has been 28 years since any party won a majority in the Lok Sabha; 23 years since coalition governments became the norm— yet India is still adapting to these realities. The tenure of Atal Bihari Vajpayee as PM did see some change,with much more consultation between coalition allies and even opposition parties. After that interlude,the culture of politics has gone back to its old ways,with brief exceptions just after elections when coalitions are negotiated. The rest of the time,New Delhi behaves as if nothing has changed since the 1980s.

That no longer seems to work,however,as a series of confrontations between the Centre and various regional parties and state governments have shown. It is not a coincidence that charismatic leaders who have established a track record of superior performance,both economic and political,now lead regional parties. They may emulate Delhi’s top-down political hierarchy in their own parties,but are nevertheless undisputed grassroots leaders,much closer to the ground and in touch with voters’ aspirations than those sitting in Delhi.

Does that mean India is doomed to fractious Centre-state politics that emasculate the Centre? Not at all: in fact Fukuyama’s definition of strong states includes not just China but also Britain,France,Germany and the US,all democracies. But what those democratic strong states have in common,and India does not,is a much more participative political culture. Regional politicians and governments in those countries would be horrified at the prospect of being dictated to from Washington DC,London,or Berlin.

The recent Centre-state confrontations in India represent the same sentiment — a budding rebellion against the “high command culture.” This nascent rebellion has not yet taken root within individual parties,but has already manifested itself within coalitions and as regional assertiveness. This is no bad thing; in fact,it can be a tremendous asset (going by Fukuyama’s distillation of the other components required for sustained success). But for that to happen,India’s ongoing evolution of political culture must move forward to its logical next level.

In democratic strong states,top-down political cultures have given way to participative ones,where national leaders don’t just issue policy edicts from remote capitals,but rather work towards selling them to their own parties,allies,opponents and the public. Every time President Obama,Prime Minister Cameron,or Chancellor Merkel embark on policy initiatives,their strategy typically includes two elements that are still missing in India. First,weeks or months of effort goes into behind-the-scenes give and take: sussing out various stakeholders’ positions; persuading allies; winning over some opponents; conceding some clauses; cutting political mini-deals,and even arm-twisting on occasion. Secondly,during and after this phase,there are continual efforts by the top leadership to promote the plan publicly.

Contrast that with last week’s sudden ban on cotton exports,where even a senior coalition ally — and cabinet minister for agriculture! — was taken by surprise. Or the equally sudden announcement last December for FDI in retail where,irrespective of the merits of the case,there had been no such comprehensive effort to build broad political support. In the case of the NCTC,the government started the consultation and promotion process only after being compelled to back down when 15 of India’s 28 chief ministers expressed reservations.

The issue of federalism,which has complicated some of these debacles,is not just some gimmick; it has real consequences that are worth debating. For instance,for the proposed NCTC to have powers to arrest would make it very different from its counterparts in strong state democracies. The American NCTC does not have that power,and the FBI (which does) is subject to legislative scrutiny (unlike the Indian NCTC). And the MI-5 in the UK neither has that power,nor is exempt from parliamentary scrutiny. Yet both those countries have successfully prevented terrorist attacks from recurring.

To be sure,India’s Constitution contains both unitary and federalist principles. And indeed some of the recent confrontations have been on subjects where the Centre has jurisdiction. But that misses the point,particularly in an India where regional parties’ participation is essential to the very existence of the Central government. Equally,governments need to keep promoting their agenda even between elections,not in dogmatic fashion but with the aim of building support for each initiative. And most importantly,the top leadership must do this directly and visibly.

The setbacks of the past couple of years are erroneously being blamed on coalitions; in fact the country has fared far better under them in the past two decades than without them in the previous four. Coalitions are a fact of life now,and it is time national leaders learned how to make them work.