The Pulse

5 Kings and 1 Queen: Who Are the Most Powerful State Leaders in India?

Which of India’s chief ministers are really chief? And how should we measure this?

Krzysztof Iwanek
5 Kings and 1 Queen: Who Are the Most Powerful State Leaders in India?
Credit: Flickr/ Narendra Modi

It’s an often-repeated, yet important fact: given the size and federal structure of India, a lot of power rests with the state governments, including their heads. Some of these states are also quite large, like Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state — with over 200 million inhabitants, it houses more people than most nations in the world. Or consider Rajasthan, India’s biggest state when it comes to land area, which is over 300,000 square kilometers (similar to the size of Poland). Thus, the leading regional politicians, even if their power is curtailed by the federal framework of the country’s constitution, may be as influential as national politicians in smaller countries of the world.

But how do we measure this power? As a proposition, my starting point is that we could take into account only the larger states and only those chief ministers who, apart from their own function, currently hold other portfolios. The process of distributing (and later redistributing) the government ministries within a ruling party or coalition may be indicative of which people or factions have more swords at their disposal. If a chief minister holds many ministries, it should tell us that he or she does not want to share much of the power even with the party colleagues, and is influential enough to get his or her party colleagues to accept it. To be frank, what such a ranking looks at is more precisely power consolidation around one person, not power as such. A chief minister may entrust the crucial departments to his or her most trusted people, would would not have to make him or her less influential.

Moreover, looking only at the ministry numbers will be misleading for several reasons. First, in India, chief ministers are anyway allotted all other sectors of power that are not put under other ministries. Second, the concrete competences within ministries are like books on the shelves: there is much logic in how they arranged next to each other, but they can still be rather easily shifted from one ministry to the other. There is no set list here: in one state a ministry may include several competences that are distributed among various ministries in another state. The current record-breaker is Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, who holds 32 ministries in his portfolio. Yet, if you look at the list, some of them are rather narrow responsibilities that could as well be included in broader ministries. Third, the portfolios can be shuffled, so we should look at longer time periods.

We could thus look at only these state government competences that offer real power. Tentatively, I assume these should be: (1) the home ministry or its equivalents, which include control over law and order (in India, most of the police forces are under state governments); (2) the finance ministry, including such competencies as tax collection; (3) the ministries that control the key resources and industries of a given state (like mining); and (4) the ministries that allow influence over the rules and levels of investments, in case the states substantially benefit from them (and the portfolios that generally set rules, which are of crucial importance to large companies). Moreover, (5) across India agriculture is still the sector that employs more people than any other. Even if it does not create that much economic value relative to its workforce numbers, it is where politicians have to search for large chunks of the electorate. This make incentives and privileges for the agricultural sector an important political commodity. Finally (6) ruling over the infrastructure and generally the public works sector allows a minister to decide which regions are to benefit more and – let’s be frank – which companies will milk more deals.

I tried to make a list below ranking India’s chief ministers by this typology. Each chief minister was given one point for each ministry of this kind. I assumed, however, that power concentration is really verified only if the chief minister was able to hold the key ministries for a few years. I used two years as an arbitrary cut-off period and each government head was given one additional point for each year of holding all of these portfolios (1 point for each year above two years of tenure). For instance, Chandrababu Naidu has held three key ministries for five years and hence his power consolidation was valued at five points. On the other hand, Vijay Rupani of Gujarat would have been given more points if he had not given away the road and building competence to his deputy minister in the middle of his tenure, which was interpreted as a sign of cabinet infighting. Coalition governments were not considered as well.

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All rankings are bound to be imperfect especially if, like this one, they are based on a single variable or a narrow set of them. This should be therefore treated as an invitation to ponder this question of power measurement rather than an exhaustive and analytic work.

Here are my top six:

1.  Chandrababu Naidu (Telugu Desam Party), Andhra Pradesh: 6 points for holding the investment, infrastructure, and industries and commerce portfolios (3 points) since 2014 (another 3 points)

2. Mamata Banerjee (All India Trinamool Congress), West Bengal: 3 points for holding the home affairs and land/land reforms portfolio (2 points) since 2016 (1 point).

3. Amarinder Singh (Indian National Congress), Punjab: 3 points for holding the agriculture and farmers’ welfare; excise and taxation; and home affairs portfolio (3 points) since 2017.

4. Vijay Rupani (Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP), Gujarat: 3 points for holding the home affairs and industries, mines, and minerals portfolios (2 points) since 2016 (1 point).

5. Trivendra Singh Rawat (BJP), Uttarakhand: 3 points for holding the home and law and justice; public works; and energy and renewable energy portfolios (3 points) since 2017.

6. Yogi Adityanath (BJP), Uttar Pradesh: 2 points for holding the revenue, tax, and finance and infrastructure portfolios (2 points) since 2017.

Does this hold any importance for the upcoming general elections in India (scheduled for April-May)? It is hard to tell. Power consolidation is not the same as government popularity. The list clearly shows that only two of the most powerful chief ministers are not from the two biggest national parties (the incumbent BJP and the Indian National Congress of the opposition, with the BJP being ahead in aggregate points). It so happens that the two government heads on the top of the ranking come from regional parties and both are currently against the BJP. But will this translate into electoral results and affect BJP’s chances of winning a majority?

We shall see soon.