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Saturday, May 26, 2018

The rise of regional Congress leaders in India

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Siddaramaiah's emergence as a major state-level leader has been a feature of the elections in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. The election verdict and Chief Minister Siddaramaiah's desire to retire after the polls will do nothing to diminish his growth in stature.

As a result, the polls in Karnataka are being perceived as a battle between Siddaramaiah and Bharatiya Janata Party stalwart and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It is also because the BJP chief ministerial candidate, B S Yeddyurappa, has been almost completely overshadowed by the prime minister's intensive campaign since May 1.

In contrast, Siddaramaiah has kept pace with Congress president Rahul Gandhi's electioneering with both public appearances and a regular recourse to tweets, which are characterized by humor as well as biting sarcasm.

For the Congress, this rise of a regional leader marks a return to the immediate post-1947 period when the party had a number of top-ranking local leaders despite the presence of towering personalities at the federal level such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and others.

The coexistence of influential leaders at both the Centre and in the states gave way in Indira Gandhi's time to a concentration of power in Delhi with regional leaders reduced to being mere supplicants rather than wielding authority as, for instance, Bidhan Chandra Roy once did in West Bengal or Pratap Singh Kairon in Punjab or Govind Ballabh Pant in Uttar Pradesh or Morarji Desai in what was then Bombay.

 The marginalization of regional leaders was largely ascribed to Indira's disinclination to allow any charismatic local Congressman acquire a sizeable base in his home province and become a rival centre of power.

The move to clip local leaders' wings was accompanied by the increasing dominance of the party's first family, which reached its highest point during the Emergency when 'Indira' was deemed synonymous with 'India' by the Congress president, D K Barooah.

Arguably, this pattern of politics with only one focal point has begun to change in the Congress. The first sign of this transformation was in Punjab last year where Amrinder Singh emerged as the No 1 figure, both before and after the party's electoral success.

That he did so despite having once made disparaging remarks about Rahul showed how the Congress "high command" had matured since Indira's time or had come to terms with its own diminishing status.
Now, the elections in Karnataka have given an opportunity to Siddaramaiah to acquire a stature similar to Amrinder's. Moreover, there is no tension this time between Delhi and Bengaluru as in Punjab earlier, when there was even speculation about Amrinder leaving the Congress.

It will be futile to deny that the increasing visibility of state-level leaders is related to the dimming of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty's aura. At the same time, the BJP's ascendancy has apparently made the Congress realize that the earlier style of politics with a concentration of power at the Centre will not work.

Just as the Congress is trying to change the perception of being a "Muslim party", to use Sonia Gandhi's words, it is also becoming accustomed to the idea of giving a free hand to local satraps. The leeway given to Amrinder was the first step and now it is Siddaramaiah's turn to operate as he pleases.

It goes without saying that this new approach will do a world of good to the party. Fortunately, it has in Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia young, personable and energetic leaders in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh who are capable of delivering the goods in the assembly elections later this year.

It is the Congress' misfortune that several prominent state leaders like Y S Rajshekara Reddy, Madhavrao Scindia and Rajesh Pilot died early. Otherwise, the process of a more even distribution of power between the Centre and the states might have begun much earlier.

At the moment, the party is trying to strike a balance between the younger generation and the older leaders to make the transition a smooth affair. Nowhere is this effort more evident than in Madhya Pradesh where the party has always had more than a normal share of heavyweights.

Thus, the 71-year-old Kamal Nath, who was once close to Sanjay Gandhi, has been nominated as the party's chief in the state while 47-year-old Scindia has become the head of the campaign committee. This balancing act means that the question of who will become the chief minister if the Congress wins remains open.

A similar situation persists in Rajasthan since the former chief Minister, 68-year-old Ashok Gehlot, has been elevated to the position of a general secretary of the All India Congress Committee in charge of the organization and the training of cadres, while the 51-year-old Sachin Pilot remains the chief of the party's state unit.

There is little doubt, however, that the generational shift evident in Rahul's ascent as Congress president is paving the way for younger leaders to gain more prominence. But it remains to be seen whether their rise will put an end to the unequal relations as in Indira's time between the high command and the state units.

The writer is a political analyst based in India. Source: IANS

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