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  Opinion   Columnists  30 Apr 2017  How Indira Gandhi & Co destroyed our federal polity

How Indira Gandhi & Co destroyed our federal polity

The writer is an author and lawyer based in Mumbai
Published : Apr 30, 2017, 12:36 am IST
Updated : Apr 30, 2017, 12:36 am IST

The point is that a system of awarding party tickets to candidates for elections is fundamentally undemocratic.

Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (Photo: PTI)
 Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (Photo: PTI)

A federal polity is perverted if it is run by centralised political parties. A Constitution establishes a mere skeleton of the polity. It is politics that provide the flesh and blood. The newly-elected Congress chief minister of Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh, spoke not a day too soon when he said on March 13 that the “time has come to pick up regional leaders in these national parties and build political campaign(s) around (those) who can challenge regional parties”. He was referring to the Akali Dal. However, he also said, “As far as selection of the state Cabinet is concerned, that decision will also be taken by Rahul Gandhi.”

Little did he realise that this makes a mockery of both parliamentary democracy and federalism. The prerogative of selection of Cabinet ministers belongs exclusively to the chief minister and to none else.


The Congress, led by Indira Gandhi, wrecked internal democratic governance within the party and systematically undermined the autonomy of chief ministers. There is some background to this. In 1937, Congress ministries were formed in many states, led by leaders of stature. But the central leadership exercised what Sir Reginald Coupland called “unitarian control”.

A wrong precedent was set: the Congress “high command” had shown that, however loose the federal tie, however wide the autonomy of the provinces in law, the intentions of the Constitution could, in fact, be contravened and a federal system converted, by unconstitutional but nonetheless effective means, into something like a unitary system by making the provincial governments and legislatures directly responsible to the “high command” and only indirectly to the people. It weakened to some extent — or would have done so if it had lasted longer — the power of responsible government to fulfil its primary purpose.


The status of the chief minister since Independence accurately reflects the quality of India’s parliamentary democracy and of its party system; specifically, the procedures that the parties follow in awarding party tickets to candidates in Assembly elections. If legislators are handpicked by the central leadership of the party with an eye to retaining control over the chief ministership, then the person elected cannot possibly aspire to be his own man. This stark political reality of highly centralised political parties warps the working of a federal Constitution. The parliamentary board of the Congress functioned as umpire in state politics. There were three broad patterns. If the legislature party was united, it was free to elect its leader. A divided party was given guidance. If one faction was dominant, its leader was not elected until after the Centre’s preference was shown. A “broad-based” cabinet was imposed as the price of central support. In the third case of an even split, informal soundings were taken and the favourite got elected. Indira Gandhi and her son sedulously disrupted it to augment their own power. In 1972, central ministers were sent down as “readymade” chief ministers.


The Janata Party era saw a different spectacle. The Bharatiya Lok Dal, led by Charan Singh, and the Bharatiya Jana Sangh constituents struck a deal parcelling out some states and got their nominees elected as leaders in seven states. The point is that a system of awarding party tickets to candidates for elections is fundamentally undemocratic.

Organisational elections are not held. A party cabal controlling the party purse awards “tickets” to favourites, unless the state’s leader has clout enough to get his men in. In the UK, it is the constituency party that has a powerful say in a candidate’s selection.

Indira Gandhi saw to it that the chief minister did not become powerful. She would prescribe the composition of the cabinet — to keep it divided. Her umpireship was thus assured. Under the norms of parliamentary democracy and federalism, a state government is responsible to the legislature.


The basic policy is laid down by the national party. It is the chief minister who decides how to implement it. He decides on whom to include in his Cabinet and when to advise the governor to dissolve the house.

This ensures his freedom from central control. It is necessary that he should also have a say in the award of party tickets.

It is not the high command but the legislature party that should elect the leader. How can a centrally appointed chief minister stand up to the Centre to assert the state’s rights?

So much for national parties. Regional parties have no problems with central leadership. Their chief becomes chief minister. Since 1989, more than one Central government rested on support from regional parties, who were members of the coalition and stipulated conditions — the tail wagging the dog.


By arrangement with Dawn

Tags: indira gandhi, amarinder singh, rahul gandhi