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The growing high command culture presents one of the greatest challenges.

Ques. The growing high command culture presents one of the greatest challenges to inner party democracy and federalism in India. Discuss.


  • High command is a power structure in a political party, and usually refers to a small group of people or even members of a single family, who dictate all the decisions taken. The high command, by default, becomes the unelected, extra-Constitutional power, undermining the autonomy of elected representatives.

Evolution of High Command Culture

  • A.K. Ghosh argues that the inception of the high command culture can be traced back to the early 1970s, after the Congress split in 1969 and Mrs Indira Gandhi’s resounding victory in the 1971 which led to power being concentrated on the bases of family name. Even BJP and CPI (M) which are regarded as cadre-based national parties and TMC regarded as mass-based party (Duverger) have not been immune to this malady, with power being concentrated in the hands of a charismatic leader and their coterie. 

Threat to Inner-Party Democracy and federalism

  • As state politics in a diverse polity like India is marked by a high level of conflicts amongst various factions representing a plethora of interests and power tussles between the local political elite, a certain degree of hierarchical control of the national leadership is indispensable to keep the party united at the state levels. However, it also creates problems like: 
  • Lack of autonomy of the state-level party units: The high command culture often gravely supresses the autonomy of the state-level party units of the national parties, which largely function at the whims of the national party leadership. The party high command has a disproportionately larger discretion in the selection of the chief minister, with the state legislators having little or no say in this regard. This practice denigrates the constitutional mandate of Parliamentary system. 
  • Meddling in cabinet formulation: The high commands are also found to be directly influencing the cabinet formation in states and state governments’ functioning from the national capital, eroding the autonomy of the CMs and state leadership. 
  • Tight grip on state party leadership: Even the head of the parties’ state units and other officials are directly nominated by the high command rather than through the party’s internal elections.
  • Ghosh argues that this reflects insecurity of the political leadership regarding facing political challenges from a popular regional leader of their party for example the case of Congress in Rajasthan or Punjab.
  • Centralization of party finances: The high commands decisively control the party’s finances including resources emanating from the states so that the national leadership always has an upper hand in regulating and distributing these scarce resources according to its discretion.
  • Defection and High Command: The centralised mode of functioning of the political parties and the stringent anti-defection law of 1985 deters party legislators from voting in the national and state legislatures according to their individual preferences.
  • Impact on parliamentary democracy: ADR reports have suggested that centralised and ambiguous working of the parties that led to distribution of party ticket to social and financial elites (Jaffrelot, M. Vaishnav). Also, a large number of candidates with criminal background as party nominees has come to the forefront

Consequences of High Command Culture:

  • The High Command culture often results in internal disgruntlement and breakaways by ambitious leaders. For example, failure to accommodate the aspirations of the intermediate castes of northern India, which had benefitted from the Green Revolution and sought greater political representation led to breakaway of leaders like Charan Singh, Chandrashekhar etc. 
  • Deeply entrenched high command culture within the national parties not only damages its own political prospects due to failure to listen to people on ground, but also in many states lose talented mass-based leaders.

Reasons for lack of inner-party democracy:

  • Vivek Mishra argues that it is the institutional weakness of the political parties that make their organizational structure extremely centralized. This is largely because political parties in India are mostly patronage-based parties, rather than power-dispersed parties (Pradeep Chhibber).
  • There are no explicit provisions in the Indian Constitution or in any law that lays down guidelines for regulating the conduct of the political parties in India.  Only Section 29 (A) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 mandates the registration of political parties. The Election Commission of India (ECI) is also not equipped to regulate the functioning of the political parties.
  • In the case of ‘Indian National Congress vs Institute of Social Welfare & Others’ of 2002, the Supreme Court held that the ECI cannot take punitive action against registered political parties for violating the principles of inner-party democracy.

Way forward: 

  • The political inaction, notwithstanding, there is a slew of recommendations on electoral reforms given by several government constituted committees like Dinesh Goswami Committee, Tarkunde Committee and Indrajit Gupta Committee which strongly argued for more transparent working of the political parties in India.


  • The 1999 Law Commission Report strongly recommended the introduction of a regulatory framework for governing the internal structures and inner party democracy of the political parties.
  • Even, a draft Political Parties (Registration and Regulation of Affairs) Act, 2011 was submitted to the Law Ministry which envisaged the creation of an Executive Committee for every political party whose members would be elected by the members of the local committees of the state units of the party, who themselves would elect the office bearers of the party from amongst themselves, without accepting any nomination. 
  • Political parties have also rejected attempts like being under the Right to Information to increase their transparency and accountability. 
  • India, as a federal polity with multi-layered diversity, needs a decentralised political sphere in the states that can evolve within its own localised political idiosyncrasies in a true spirit of inner-party federalism and parliamentary democracy.

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