Thuglak returns to independent India (actually it is an impostor), wins the Lok Sabha election and becomes the prime minister with the support of all the 450 MPs. How? He makes them deputy prime ministers, buys their loyalty. The sarcasm couldn’t be more pronounced than what political satirist, the late Cho Ramaswamy, wrote in his 1969 Tamil play Muhammed Bin Thuglak. Cho’s inimitable take on the deputy PM’s post has found new meaning in the form of deputy chief ministers. India has more than two dozen of them currently; highest in its democratic history. The deputy CM’s post has no constitutional sanction. “The chief minister shall be appointed by the governor and the other ministers shall be appointed by the governor on the advice of the chief minister,” states Article 164(1) of the Constitution. So, he is another minister, an all-purpose lieutenant perhaps, but never the No. 1 even if the tag of chief minister is appended before his name. He remains prefixed with a “deputy”—the tag only providing more importance notionally than his cabinet colleagues.
In coalition governments, the deputy’s post is invariably a balancing act—Sushil Kumar Modi (13 years between 2005 and 2020) and Tarkishore Prasad and Renu Devi in the latest Nitish Kumar government in Bihar; Ajit Pawar in Maharashtra; Dushyant Chautala in Haryana. You need to keep the coalition partner happy, especially if you are short of a majority. So the chief minister is more accommodative of his deputy while keeping him on a tight leash. And in single-party governments, it is about keeping other chief ministerial aspirants and chieftains in check. Karnataka chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa has three deputy CMs. In Tamil Nadu, it is a power-sharing arrangement between chief minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami and O. Panneerselvam after the two factions of the AIADMK merged. Only in rare cases like in Delhi where Arvind Kejriwal chose not to hold any portfolios, his deputy Manish Sisodia virtually calls the shots of day-to-day administration. In cases like Andhra Pradesh, CM Jaganmohan Reddy appointed five deputy CMs to deflect criticism that his government was being controlled by the powerful Reddy community. In Rajasthan, Sachin Pilot recently discovered that being deputy CM and holding two powerful portfolios was no insurance against being sidelined, suspected of undercutting or being the target of a criminal investigation if the chief minister had his way.
Sometimes family dynamics play a role. Though he headed a minority government between 2006 and 2011 and survived on support from the Congress and PMK, Karunanidhi never shared power with them. But once he decided to make his daughter Kanimozhi a Rajya Sabha MP and elder son M.K. Alagiri a Union minister in 2009, he had to promote his son M.K. Stalin as deputy chief minister, who was already No. 3 in the cabinet as the local administration minister.
At the opposite end, powerful chief ministers like Jayalalitha and Naveen Patnaik scoffed at the idea of having a deputy CM. Similarly, Narendra Modi as Gujarat chief minister or MP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan shunned the idea of a second in command.
(L to R) Sushil Kumar Modi, Renu Devi and Tarkishore Prasad
Two Replace No. 2
The 2020 elections in Bihar produced several surprises: the BJP became the No. 1 party in the NDA, Nitish Kumar retained his CM’s chair, but his long-time No. 2 Sushil Kumar Modi made way for two deputy chief ministers, a post he held for 13 years. Tarkishore Prasad and Renu Devi replaced the BJP veteran, but both are one-time protégés of their immediate predecessor. Prasad from the Vaishya community is a four-term legislator for Katihar, while Devi, who belongs to the backward Nonia caste, won the assembly polls five times since 2000 from Bettiah. She was also a minister in the Nitish government (2005-09) and a national vice president of her party. They have a tough act to follow after the exit of Sushil Modi, a perfect foil to Nitish during his eventful tenure.
Sushil was often blamed for letting Nitish grow stronger at the BJP’s cost, although the 68-year-old turned out to be one of the longest-serving deputy CMs in the country because of his remarkable rapport with the CM. He was second in command in the Nitish government since 2005, except for a period between June 2013 and July 2017 when the JD(U) leaders broke ranks with the BJP. The bonhomie between Sushil and Nitish was an example of coalition dharma as Sushil played second fiddle without complaint. Little surprise that Nitish says he will miss him in his new term. As CM of the Mahagathbandhan (2015-2017), Nitish had to work with a rookie deputy, Tejashwi Prasad Yadav, Lalu’s son and a first-time MLA.
Bihar has had a few deputy CMs in the past. In 1967, Karpoori Thakur was the deputy in the first non-Congress government of Mahamaya Prasad Sinha. Congress leader Ram Jaipal Singh Yadav was the deputy CM during Bhola Paswan Shahstri’s rule in 1968. Earlier (1946-57), Congress strongman Anugrah Narayan Sinha was the deputy to Bihar’s first chief minister Shri Krishna Sinha.
Rajasthan and MP
Sachin Pilot, who lost the deputy chief minister’s post in the Ashok Gehlot-led Rajasthan government after his failed coup, may not have known the late Jamuna Devi, who was deputy CM under Digvijaya Singh between 1998 and 2003 in Madhya Pradesh. Given how Pilot’s 18-month stint as Gehlot’s deputy panned out, a famous quip by Devi may still strike a chord. The feisty tribal leader known across MP as Bua-ji, had said: “Mein Digvijaya Singh ke tandoor mei jal rahi hoon. (I’m being roasted in Singh’s oven).” For those five years, Devi’s complaint was that despite her seniority, administrative experience and perception of being No. 2, she couldn’t get any real work done for her constituency or the tribals. Pilot too seemed to nurse the same complaint against Gehlot.
Be it Rajasthan or MP, deputy CMs hardly managed to break the jinx of being powerless rank-holders. Though Devi’s predecessor, the late Subhash Yadav—Digvijaya’s deputy (1993-1998)—projected himself as a strong leader of farmers, he too could never outwit his boss. Perhaps Pilot’s friend Jyotiraditya Scindia was better aware of this chequered history when he was, after the Congress’s December 2018 electoral victory in MP, offered the post under Kamal Nath. Scindia turned it down but, unlike Pilot, managed to exact revenge by toppling the Nath government 15 months later.
There are more analogies. In January 2003, eleven months before Gehlot—then a first-term CM—was to face assembly polls his rivals complained to party president Sonia Gandhi about the growing anti-incumbency in the state. They said the party had lost confidence in two significant electoral blocs in Rajasthan—the scheduled castes and the Jats. Sonia directed Gehlot to elevate cabinet colleagues Banwari Lal Bairwa (a Dalit) and Kamla Beniwal (a Jat) as deputy CMs. He complied. Yet, like Pilot, Bairwa and Beniwal could not outsmart Gehlot. By December 2003, the Congress was voted out in Rajasthan and MP. Gehlot and Digvijaya retained their political clout; their deputies faded out.
Y. Joykumar Singh
In tthe Northeast, five of the seven states—Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura—have deputy CMs, most of them political necessities in coalition governments. Incidentally, the BJP is in power in all states, except Mizoram. In Manipur, deputy CM Y. Joykumar Singh almost brought down the BJP-led government of chief minister N. Biren Singh this July. It took an urgent meeting with BJP leader Amit Shah to pacify Joykumar Singh and his five National People’s Party colleagues for the government to survive a no-confidence motion. “Joykumar is a wily politician and he will continue to keep the CM on his toes. He knows how important he is to the coalition,” says a Manipur BJP leader.
Tripura deputy CM Jishnu Dev Varma is a member of the erstwhile indigenous royal family. His elevation was a calculated move to balance out the fact that the BJP brought in a relatively unknown face, Biplab Deb, a Bengali with roots in Bangladesh, to head the coalition government of the BJP and Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura (IPTF).
In the region’s most politically fickle state, Arunachal, which has a history of all MLAs of a party switching over to another overnight, deputy CM Chowna Mein of the BJP is a former Congress minister. It is no surprise that he holds the important finance portfolio to go with his credentials as an influential politician who can sway voters in several constituencies. Meghalaya’s Prestone Tynsong is also a former Congressman who switched to the ruling NPP in 2017 and became the deputy CM a year later. Nagaland deputy CM Y. Patton is mostly known for his controversial comments. He is a Lotha, the state’s fourth largest indigenous tribe.
(Cloclwise) Alla Nani, Dharmana K Das, K. Narayana Swamy and Amzath Basha Shaik Beari.
Andhra Pradesh and Telangana
In Andhra Pradesh, the YSRCP founder and chief minister Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy has five deputy chief ministers—an Indian record. That is, critics say, his way of keeping an electoral promise that his cabinet will give more than 50 per cent representation to backward classes (BC), scheduled caste and scheduled tribes. He took the 2019 assembly polls winning 140 of 170 assembly seats and bulked it up with 25 of 27 Lok Sabha seats in the state. Of the five deputies, two are from the BC community (Dharmana Krishna Das and K. Narayana Swamy; one each from Kapu (Alla Nani), scheduled tribe (Papmula Pusarivani) and Muslim (Amzath Basha Shaik Beari) communities. He has applied the same caste ratio for the 19 ministers in his 25-member cabinet: 5 BCs, 4 Kapus, 4 SCs, 3 Reddys and one each from ST, Kamma and Vysya.
His political rivals dub the appointments as a farce since the actual power is wielded by a four-member team from YSR’s Reddy community: Vijai Sai Reddy (former family auditor-turned MP), Sajjala Ramakrishna Reddy (journalist-turned-business partner-turned-politician), Y.V. Subba Reddy (maternal uncle and TTD chairman) and Krishna Mohan Reddy. “In reality none of his cabinet ministers enjoy any power. Every decision of the cabinet has to be cleared by three of the four members, while Krishna Mohan, who was brought into CMO as OSD from his native Kadapa district, was to deal with party MLAs’ problems and issues. In other words, he has been drafted in for party work, while the other three run and control the state administration,” alleges senior TDP MLA Gorantla Butchaiah Choudhary. But a senior YSRCP leader disagrees, saying the CM kept his promise. “Fifty per cent of cabinet as well other posts are allocated to BCs, SCs, STs and other weaker sections. No state can boast of this.”
In contrast, the TRS government of K. Chandrasekhara Rao in Telangana had two deputy CMs, both from the SC community, in his first term. He chose to restrict it to just one deputy from the minority community in his second. His political opponents allege that KCR failed to implement the promise he made during the separate statehood struggle. “He misled the people of Telangana by promising that his struggle for separate statehood was not to occupy the top post and promised to make a Dalit the first chief minister of the new state,” senior Congress leader and former MP V. Hanumantha Rao says. He could not even make a Dalit his deputy CM.
The 80-hour stint of NCP leader Ajit Pawar as deputy chief minister to BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis will arguably be among India’s most discussed political mysteries in recent years. Was the seven-term legislator a Trojan horse sent by his uncle, NCP supremo Sharad Pawar, to the BJP? Did he really miscalculate his clout within his party? The power play between Ajit’s hurried swearing-in on October 23 last year and the fall of the Fadnavis government three days later to make way for Maha Vikas Agadhi of Shiv Sena, NCP and the Congress spawned more questions than answers. Yet, two months later, Ajit returned as the state’s deputy CM in the Uddhav Thackeray-led government and was given the finance portfolio. Ajit had also served as deputy CM between November 2010 and September 2014 in a Congress-NCP government under Prithviraj Chavan. He held the finance and power portfolios then too.
Deputy CMs are not an exception in Maharashtra, barring Fadnavis’s first stint as CM in 2014-2019 or from 1985 to 1995 when CMs changed in quick succession. But unlike most states where deputy CMs often lament about having little say, Maharashtra has had a history of tall leaders, who were no pushovers, hold this office. From the late Gopinath Munde (BJP) to Narayan Rane (Shiv Sena) to Chhagan Bhujbal and Ajit Pawar of the NCP, the deputy CMs held their own sway on the state’s politics.
(L to R) Laxman Savadi, Ashwath Narayan and Govind Karajol
State of Compromises
Karnataka has had a string of deputy CMs from the 1990s, but the BJP’s decision to name three deputies to chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa when he took charge last year was a surprise. Broadly, political observers interpreted it as a signal that the party leadership wasn’t going to hand the CM a free rein. Besides, in picking Govind Karajol, C.N. Ashwath Narayan and Laxman Savadi, the party had overlooked several senior leaders, even those who had been deputy CMs in the past—suggesting that a new set of leaders were being promoted. Both Karajol and Ashwath Narayan belong to communities that the BJP has been trying to woo in order to expand its presence uniformly across the state: the caste representation, therefore, had logic to it. In Karnataka, much of the BJP’s support still comes from the Lingayats. Yediyurappa, who is the party’s best-known face, is from that community. As does Laxman Savadi who, until now, was mostly confined to the Belgaum region he comes from—hence, including him in the triad of deputies when the CM was himself the community’s tallest leader added a further touch of curiosity.
There’s a fairly long history to deputy CMs in Karnataka—S.M. Krishna had the post in 1992 when M. Veerappa Moily became CM in a Congress government. In 1994, when the Janata Dal was voted to power, J.H. Patel became deputy to H.D. Deve Gowda—a case of two prominent leaders from two powerful castes. Patel remains the only instance of a deputy going on to become CM during the same tenure and staying put—this happened when Gowda became PM in 1996. Of course, he too had a deputy—at the time, the relatively junior Siddaramaiah. But while the post brought the latter into prominence, it didn’t help him in the ensuing polls. Siddaramaiah lost his assembly seat in 1999. But he went on to become CM for a full term between 2013 and 2018, without deputies. With Karnataka’s first coalition government in 2004, the post reflected the two-party set-up—Dharam Singh of the Congress was CM and Siddaramaiah of the Janata Dal (Secular) his deputy. Later, when he fell out with Deve Gowda and was expelled from the party, Siddaramaiah was replaced by M.P. Prakash.
A novelty came in 2006, when Gowda’s son H.D. Kumaraswamy broke away from his party to forge an alliance with the BJP. Kumaraswamy became CM with Yediyurappa as his deputy—their pact was to switch roles at the end of 20 months, but Kumaraswamy reneged and elections were called. The rest of the story is well-known: the BJP formed its first government in Karnataka in 2008 with Yediyurappa at the helm. But the deputy CM was revived towards the end of that tumultuous tenure which saw three chief ministers—in 2012, CM Jagadish Shettar had R. Ashoka and K.S. Eshwarappa as deputies; given the circumstances, a case of striking a compromise between the three. In 2018, a hung assembly and subsequent Congress-JD(S) coalition again necessitated the deputy CM: the Congress’s G. Parameshwara, a Dalit leader, was Kumaraswamy’s deputy.
The Patidar Problem
Nitinbhai Patel’s biodata had been quietly circulated by the BJP’s Gujarat unit as the probable chief minister after Anandiben Patel stepped down in 2016. Congratulatory messages poured in for the Patel leader, representing 15 per cent of the state’s population. State unit president Vijay Rupani gave a statement that he was happy doing his job as an organisation man. However, Rupani was chosen for the top post, a decision Anandiben was not happy about. Sources say Patel’s name was “intentionally floated” to ensure Anandiben’s resignation. She fought for her nominee, saying it was crucial to have a Patel as CM; Rupani, a Jain bania, would not be able to command the same support.
Thus, Patel became the deputy CM. He remained a deputy even after BJP won the assembly elections in 2017. But, because of his experience, he has been given charge of important ministries such as finance and health. “It is not in the party’s interest to rattle the important Patidars who hold sway in northern Gujarat, a region where the party did well in the assembly elections. The BJP needs a strong Patel leader to take on the challenge from young Patidar leader Hardik Patel. Also, the party cannot forget that it was the Patels who were instrumental in BJP’s rise in the 1990s,” says a BJP national leader. The other four deputy CMs in Gujarat history, only two went on to become chief ministers—Chimanbhai Patel and Keshubhai Patel. No doubt, the Patels love to say “P for Patels, P for Power”.
It is probably a first in India—a three-time chief minister settling for the second best, be a deputy CM. That is what O. Pannneerselvam or OPS had to grudgingly accept when he decided to merge his small breakaway faction with the larger faction of the AIADMK headed by CM Edappadi K. Palaniswami in 2017. It was a comedown for a politician handpicked by Jayalalitha to stand in for her as chief minister not once but twice when she had to step down due to legal cases. He was the natural choice to be CM after Jayalalitha’s death in 2016, but was unseated to make way for Sasikala, who instead was sent to jail. Not before she nominated Palaniswami or EPS as her proxy, though. He too rebelled against her later.
It has been a stormy ride for OPS as he saw EPS consolidating his hold. Projecting himself as a simple, accessible man, EPS emerged as the undisputed leader of the AIADMK and relegated OPS to No. 2. OPS might have presented budgets as finance minister, but over 300 files from his housing ministry await the CM’s clearance. Though OPS managed to retain some control over the AIADMK as party coordinator, while EPS became the joint coordinator, his writ within the government has been whittled down. Even postings and transfers in his department are not approved quickly. “OPS is frustrated that his decisions have to be double-checked by the CMO,” says a legislator.
Since EPS and two of his trusted lieutenants, who are also powerful ministers, are from the Gounder community of western Tamil Nadu, OPS is needed to balance this caste factor as he is a Thevar—another numerically strong backward class. That there is constant push and pull became evident when several ministers projected EPS as the party’s CM candidate for the 2021 state elections. Angered OPS supporters countered with posters in his native Theni district: “OPS for CM.” Calm prevailed after OPS reluctantly accepted the party’s line.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell who is CM and who is deputy—that’s the kind of clout and popularity Manish Sisodia wields. The man behind school and health sector reforms in Delhi lends heft to the non-constitutional post of deputy chief minister. Sisodia can also claim a fair share of the credit for the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) third successive win. It was the narrative of good governance and the ‘education model’ that propelled Arvind Kejriwal’s government to victory in highly polarised assembly elections in February this year. When Kejriwal made friend Sisodia his deputy in 2015, political pundits interpreted the move as the CM’s ploy to free himself up and branch out of Delhi. After the party won 67 of 70 assembly seats in Delhi, it was only natural for Kejriwal to nurse ambitions in national politics. While Kejriwal focused on Punjab and other states, Sisodia was given charge of Delhi.
Praveen Rai, a political analyst with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), says the power division was clear from the beginning. “Sisodia worked extremely hard. That’s the most visible work the government has done. Sisodia is not into political controversies and he is one of the best performing deputy CMs in the country. There are two deputy CMs in the UP government, but nobody even knows their names,” Rai says.
The duo’s relationship goes back to their activism days. A journalist-turned-activist, Sisodia started working with Kejriwal in 1998 to fight corruption. Though several founding members of the AAP such as Yogendra Yadav, Prashant Bhushan and Mayank Gandhi deserted the party on ideological differences, Sisodia has been a solid support to Kejriwal. In the long run, Kejriwal has Sisodia as his successor in mind, says Rai. “Both are young and by 2024 or 2029, they are hoping to emerge as an alternative to the BJP. If the party expands, Kejriwal will move out and Sisodia will be his successor,” he says.
When Yogi Adityanath, a Thakur, was chosen as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in 2017, it became imperative for the BJP to strike out a caste balance, and the party chose two deputy CMs—Keshav Prasad Maurya and Dinesh Sharma. Maurya, an OBC leader, was given charge of UP as state president just before the assembly elections to consolidate support among non-Yadav backward castes and Dalits. After the party’s victory, Maurya was expected to be CM. But Adityanath was chosen and the choice didn’t go down well with the OBCs, especially the Koeris. So, Maurya was accommodated as deputy CM. Koeris are the fourth largest politically organised farmer community, representing over six per cent of UP’s population, after Yadavs, Jats and Kurmis.
Also, the BJP could not ignore its traditional upper caste vote-bank of Brahmins. Thus Lucknow mayor Dinesh Sharma became the second deputy CM. The director of Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute in Allahabad, Prof. Badri Narayan, says the deputy CM is nothing but political accommodation. “It is a symbolic thing to give representation to various castes and communities. People’s aspirations are rising, but there can be only one chief minister. The deputy CM is seen as a probable future CM,” Narayan explains. For proof people cite deputy CMs Ram Prakash Gupta and Kamalapati Tripathi. But Gupta became CM more than three decades after he served as a deputy. Tripathi did not have to wait that long and took the CM’s seat one year after he demitted office as deputy CM.
It is Adityanath who wields all the power. In fact, his ascension is believed to have increased fissures between Thakurs and Brahmins and also left the non-Yadav OBCs dissatisfied. This was apparent as the BJP lost Lok Sabha bypolls in Gorakhpur and Phulpur, constituencies vacated by Adityanath and Maurya, respectively.
In October 2019, when elections to the 90-member Haryana assembly threw up a hung verdict, all eyes were on 31-year-old Dushyant Chautala. In just 10 months, Dushyant had captured the imagination of the electorate by rebelling against his grandfather and former Haryana chief minister Om Prakash Chautala to form his own party, the Jananayak Janta Party (JJP). With 10 seats in his kitty, Dushyant emerged as kingmaker in the state that gave India’s political lexicon the infamous idiom of ‘Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram’. For Dushyant, there were two clear choices: side with a BJP that he had acerbically attacked during the poll campaign or throw his weight behind the Congress which had dismissed his overtures for a pre-poll alliance. The BJP got 40 seats, the Congress 31. Dushyant chose the BJP and became deputy CM under M.L. Khattar.
Dushyant, once dismissed as a political novice, emerged as the real claimant of his great-grandfather and former deputy PM Devi Lal’s legacy. With a dozen ministries on his watch—revenue, excise, industries, public works, employment, food etc—it is no surprise that he is often hailed as the ‘real CM’ of Haryana.
The state has had a long history of deputy CMs—from Banarsi Das Gupta and Hukam Singh in the 1970s-80s (both became CMs for short stints) to Chander Mohan (2005-2008), remembered more for his romance with Fiza aka Anuradha Bali than his long political innings—none have held the political clout that Dushyant has come to enjoy.
By G.C. Shekhar, Giridhar Jha, Bhavna Vij-Aurora, Preetha Nair, Puneet Nicholas Yadav, Ajay Sukumaran and Abdul Gani