For a party as big as the Congress, with its base extending to the length and breadth of the country, such a policy is indeed correct. The earlier hands-on approach by the high command had only fuelled dissidence, contributing to its downfall.
But a federal system will fail to deliver and, more importantly, turn counter-productive if the party does not clearly lay down a basic constitution (the stand of the party on issues, such as reforms, governance, subsidies, secularism etc) within which all state units are to operate.
Let us consider the recent case of the Andhra Pradesh unit of the Congress promising restoration of free electricity to farmers in the state if voted back to power. This can be termed as a desperate, last-ditch attempt to capitalise on the poor state of the farmers affected by drought in the state. But, of course, there is the larger picture. Can one state unit oppose reforms while the other, which is in government, implement it The Karnataka and Kerala governments in the south, which are ruled by the Congress, have been pushing power reforms in their respective states despite stiff opposition.
The partys move in Andhra Pradesh has grave implications. It has thrown up the question of whether reforms that the state has undertaken will end once Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party loses power. As the elections are two years away, the immediate fallout could well be the uncertainty and its consequent impact on flow of investments. Multilateral institutions, such as the World Bank, have sunk millions of dollars in building electricity infrastructure in the state. They will definitely be worried. The state, ironically, has topped credit rating agency, Crisils, rating of states performance in the power sector.
Karnatakas intransigence on the Cauvery issue has been left unattended by Mrs Gandhi on the reasoning that it is an inter-state dispute. But it was her party in government which has now been hauled for contempt of court. A clear brief that constitutional responsibilities should not be given a go-by should have forced Karnataka chief minster SM Krishna to act differently on the issue.
The easier way out for the party high command, obviously, is to have state- specific policies to feed political compulsions, despite contradictions on a national scale. But this will affect the party in the long run both when it attempts to come to power at the Centre and more so after it forms the government.
The party would definitely not like to see its orders being disobeyed by a state government when it is in power at the Centre. Similarly, a state going back on reforms would definitely invite its condemnation.
Therefore, the Congress needs to draft a set of dos and donts for its state units so that its path to power at the Centre and its performance thereon is smooth. Otherwise, it may sadly realise that the gains that it made in one state through populist measures would be lost in another where it is in power and cannot offer such carrots.
Interestingly, the move by the partys Andhra Pradesh unit is short-sighted and fraught with political risks especially in the context of Punjab where it promised free electricity during the elections but is finding it difficult to implement it after coming to power. Maybe leaders of the state units which are in the Opposition should be invited for the Mount Abu brain-storming session so that they can understand the problems involved in governing and fulfiling unreasonable promises.