In the spirit of the just-concluded Assembly Elections in Bihar, here is my attempt at political theorising, which Nitin Pai classifies as “political gossip”.
During the ten years of UPA rule at the Union government, the opposition BJP lacked a strong centre. The central leadership was bereft of ideas following defeat in the 2004 General Elections, and this was badly shown up in the 2009 General Elections when the BJP put in an even worse performance.
All was not lost, however. The lack of strong political leadership at the centre had meant that BJP units in different states managed to thrive. Narendra Modi became Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 (albeit following a directive by the BJP central leadership), and won three consecutive elections there. His track record as Gujarat CM was pivotal to him getting elected as Prime Minister in 2014.
Around the same time, Shivraj Singh Chouhan emerged as a strong leader in Madhya Pradesh, and Vasundhara Raje, who had once before been chief minister in Rajasthan, came back with renewed strength. Manohar Parrikar was a strong Chief Minister in Goa. The period also saw the BJP forming its first state government in South India under BS Yeddyurappa.
This state-level buildup of strength was key in driving the BJP (and Modi, who had managed to appoint himself leader) to success in the 2014 parliamentary elections. Modi brought on his trusted aide from Gujarat Amit Shah as the president of the party.
While the objective of capturing the Union Government had been met, this created a new problem for the party – it had a strong centre once again. And the strong centre has meant that regional leaders now have less chances to thrive. After Modi and Parrikar moved to the Union government, relative lightweights have been installed as chief ministers of Gujarat and Goa, respectively.
Chouhan and Raje have been implicated in scandals (related to the Vyapam recruitment and Lalit Modi, respectively). Yeddyurappa has been kicked upstairs as National Vice President of the party. Elections are being fought in the name of Modi and Shah rather than projecting a strong state leader. No chief ministerial candidate was projected in the recent Bihar poll debacle. The Haryana chief minister was a nobody when he was installed. Lightweight Kiran Bedi was projected in the Delhi polls, which ended in a massacre for the party.
In other words, ever since Modi and Shah came to power a year ago, the BJP has been showing promise towards becoming a “high command driven” party, like the Congress before it. The Congress, which has looked rather clueless since the last days of its 2nd UPA government, should serve as a good example to the BJP in terms of what might happen to an over-centralised party.
The BJP has its own template on how strong state level leadership can lead to success, yet it looks like it’s in danger of discarding its own successful formula and following the Congress path to failure.