West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has floated the idea of forming a federal front of states such as Odisha, West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand to organise a united struggle to compel the central government to allocate special funds for these backward states. Not only this. Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party has extended 'outside political support' to the central government in return for providing extra funds for the development of the backward state of Uttar Pradesh.
These demands by some regional parties have once again brought to centre stage the crucial problem of uneven levels of growth faced by the 28 states and seven union territories of India. The Indian situation is special because tensions and conflicts among the relatively large, resource-rich and developed states like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh in the south, or Maharashtra and Gujarat in the west, or Punjab and Haryana in the north have to coexist with the concerns of the backward states.
It should be noted that the Constitution makers were not only conscious of the economic, political and cultural diversity of the country; they provided the institutional architecture to deal with the short- and long-term problems confronted by 'special category' states.
Article 280 of the Constitution provides for the establishment of a finance commission every five years for the division and allocation of fiscal resources between the Centre and state governments. This body also evolves the criteria for 'special grants' to backward states. The present 14th Finance Commission is grappling with this challenge.
Hence, the crux of the matter is political credibility and the acceptance of the central government's fairness, especially by regionalists such as Naveen Patnaik, Mamata Banerjee or Nitish Kumar. The Manmohan Singh government is responsible for creating an impression among non-coalition partners by giving positive signals to Mulayam Singh Yadav's demand for special grants.
It is a fact that the regionalists are guided purely by 'local' economic and political considerations while taking anti-central government postures, and it also cannot be denied that coalition partners at the Centre are able to appropriate disproportionate benefits for their states.
This is not the first time that the party or parties in power at the Centre have been attacked by state governments ruled by the opposition parties or that a partisan central government has treated opposition party governments in an unfair manner while allocating special financial grants. The first communist government in Kerala in 1957 led by EMS Namboodiripad had a big clash with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru for discriminating against the state.
The political distancing among parties ruling at the Centre and different parties in states has increased, even intensified, during the phase of coalition governments at the Centre. The Tamil Nadu government even suspected the neutrality of the Inter-State Water Dispute Tribunal with HD Deve Gowda occupying the office of prime minister.
Chandrababu Naidu, as chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, led a delegation to New Delhi and asked then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee to set a tradition and consult chief ministers before selecting members of the finance commission because 'forward' states were supposedly getting discriminatory treatment in the allocation of funds.
The upshot of all this is that the demand for a federal front of economically-backward eastern Indian states will inspire confidence among federal units. However, a so-called non-BJP non-Congress coalition of regionalists is not a solution to the problems of a diverse India.
At the end of the day, a politically and administratively effective central government will have to be in power to properly 'mediate' and find solutions for conflicts between the Centre and the states or among the states themselves.
CP Bhambhri is a former professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
The views expressed by the author are personal