Opinion

Plurality of Ideas critical

This brings us to the question of federalism and whether the true spirit has been eroded by the present government. Globally, 27 countries presently have federal political systems, encompassing 40 percent of the world’s population. In most of these countries, there is sharing of power and resources in such a way that there is no conflict of interest.

The Opposition has upped the ante against the Centre over what it clearly views as an attack on federalism. Recently, Opposition parties in a joint memorandum as reported wrote to Prime Minister Modi that the States will not agree to ‘unconstitutional usurpation of powers’, which go against federal governance and this could lead to ‘undesirable crises’.

The memorandum was signed by leaders from 10 political parties– Congress, RJD, TMC, Shiv Sena, DMK, SP, CPI, AAP, TRS and IUML. The bottom line being matters that ‘definitely require federal consultations must be discussed with the States, instead of issuing unilateral orders.” Earlier, in a scathing attack on Modi government Congress leader, Rahul Gandhi in Lok Sabha had asserted “India is described in the Constitution as a Union of States and not as a nation. . . .It is a partnership, not a kingdom”.

This brings us to the question of federalism and whether the true spirit has been eroded by the present government. Globally, 27 countries presently have federal political systems, encompassing 40 percent of the world’s population. In most of these countries, there is sharing of power and resources in such a way that there is no conflict of interest.

Dr. B. R. Ambedkar had clearly outlined that State governments are not sub-national agents of the Union government but are governments in their own right, with a specific set of powers and responsibilities guaranteed by the Constitution. The Union government cannot, therefore, intervene in the domain of State.

One may mention that the essence of federalism is to create institutional and political arrangements that ensure effective governance. According to King College political scientist Louise Tillin in her 2019 book, ‘Indian Federalism’wrote India opted for a unique model of federalism – fairly centralised but with a strong degree of interdependence between the Centre and the States to tackle issues that arise in pluralistic societies. It goes without saying that States ought to be respected as citizens are attached to the idea that they should be represented by different governments.

Time and again many forces have challenged the Indian federalism such as regionalism, lack of fiscal federalism, where most of the share of the tax pool lies with the Central government, union list has more items than state list, language and the cultural conflicts mainly related to the southern States, uneven economic development of the States, issues of the asymmetrical federalism, demand for statehood and secessionist movements etc. These challenges can be addressed by cooperative federalism where there is cooperation among the Union and State governments to work together on issues and programs for resolving the issues.

The question raised of whether India is first a nation or a Union of States is non sequitur. It has to be agreed that the two notions are perfectly compatible and need not be pitted against one another. The question to what extent the centralising tendencies of the Union government will affect the prerogatives of States and, therefore, provide grain to the mill of those who aspire for greater autonomy.

Political analysts are of the opinion that a series of reforms have altered the balance of power between the Centre and the States to the benefit of the former. The Centre has delayed distribution of revenue collected and sought to withhold compensation due to States. The Central government has passed laws on State subjects like agriculture, dooming their implementation from the start in a context where fewer States align with the party in power at the Centre. In many cases, reforms that were meant to foster cooperative federalism failed to deliver on that promise as the governance imposed by Modi and the PMO have pushed towards more unilateral decision making.

Although law and order is a State subject, the government has done all it can to undermine the capacity and autonomy of State governments to enforce their writ in the territories under their jurisdiction. The reckless invocation of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act to suppress political dissent is an example of how the Modi government seeks to centralise punitive powers in its hands. Also the government has used investigative agencies such as the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate to weaken and threaten parties and State governments opposed to it. The Covid-19 pandemic provided a great opportunity but the government acted unilaterally from the start.

It cannot be denied that concentration of power at the Centre has questioned the real intention of federalism in the country. The States are always at the mercy of the Centre, not just for equitable sharing of resources but also in matters of governance. Even recently, the Centre has been planning to regulate the services of IAS and IPS officers in States, which incidentally has been opposed by all Opposition-ruled States.

A truly effective federal system can operate when the political leadership firmly believes in decentralisation and involvement of States in decision-making. This is easier said than done as the present leadership is more interested in heckling Opposition-ruled States and is not interested in listening to their demands and points of view. On the other hand, the States ruled by the party in power cannot raise their voice against the authoritarian Central leadership.

The other important aspect that comes up in discussing federalism is the devolution of resources to the village level. Most States do not involve the panchayats in ascertaining their needs and allotting adequate resources to them. The panchayats are left to the mercy of the States, not just in financial matters but also in planning developmental needs. For example take the case of national highways, which are being constructed at a fast pace, whereas most district and rural roads are in a pitiable condition.

Finally, a federal polity should obviously ensure plurality of identities and hence help resist majoritarian mobilisation based on a singular and exclusionary identity. The renowned economist, Amartya Sen, made a strong case for a multiplicity of identities as key to expanding human freedoms. Identity-based majoritarian mobilisation, however, requires the erasure of such plural identities. As a result, despite conditions being more conducive for federating and a promise to usher in cooperative federalism, processes and actions taken by the NDA government have actually worsened in recent years.

The reduction of the State of Jammu and Kashmir to Union Territories, squeezing taxation powers of State governments, the New Education Policy denied a role for State governments, arbitrary levy of cess that is not shared with States and flexing of financial and political muscle to direct policy-making by State governments have assumed a more systemic tenor.

This shift also appears to be inspired by an erroneous belief that a strong Centre is required to make India powerful. However, history tells us otherwise and most political scientists believe that the current trend would lead the country to a disastrous path with States always in conflict with the Centre. Only time will tell in which way the federal polity of the country would go.

 

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Dhurjati Mukherjee

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