Finally, the hour has come, or has it? The answer will be provided by a clue to whether the Prime Minister’s meet on replacing the Planning Commission with a body more in sync with federal principle was a mini political cameo or a genuine constitutional classic.
For an appetiser, read this: “Sitting in New Delhi, the Centre cannot always do justice to the potential and the needs of various states in the country. By virtue of being close to the people, the state governments can respond much better in understanding and fulfilling the expectations of the people through good governance.” This could have been Parkash Singh Badal at his softest best.
But it wasn’t. And if the appetiser isn’t inviting enough, there is more on the menu. Read on.
“A vast and diverse country such as ours cannot survive without a vibrant and functional federal structure. But that has come under increasing strain merely to suit the whims and fancies of the rulers in Delhi.” This could even have been from some controversial resolution passed in Madurai, Imphal, or Anandpur Sahib. It isn’t.
Both quotes come from the leader of a party that has, so far, been identified with excessive centralism and unitarism as the sole recipes for national unity and integrity: the BJP. More importantly, the leader himself has often been thought more saffron than secular: Narendra Modi.
Most importantly, this came not when he was in the Opposition in some obscure state or even a chief minister of a major province. This is straight from the man who holds the office of the Prime Minister of India.
Understanding the landmines
So, have we travelled the distance we needed to cover in order to transcend the explosive contradictions of a society driven by internal fratricidal strife of the 1970, 80s, and the 90s? Have we understood finally the invisible landmines that once led to the partition of the country and at least on three subsequent occasions brought it close perilously to open insurgency, if not on the brink of dismemberment after 1947?
A clear answer is yet to emerge but never before have we been so close. The reason why optimism could prove to be premature is that the key players on the national scene still keep us guessing about their real motives. Have our political class concluded, as it always does, that the best way to kill an issue is to pay lip service to it? Or is there a genuine realisation in their minds that the country’s diversity is not just an Independence Day slogan but a reality that must not only be accepted but also respected.
The question of genuine federalism goes far beyond the need for a bureaucratic reallocation of departments between the Centre and the states, even though that is the most vital and sacred first step towards the ultimate goal. That ultimate goal is the emergence of an India proud of its richness in social, cultural, religious, linguistic and even ethnic diversity, and capable of using this diversity to release creative and constructive energies instead of allowing it become a handicap. The goal also is to build an India that is not only an economic and military superpower but also a country whose citizens, while having access to basic amenities, enjoy the right to live in dignity, taking equality before law as a given. This isn’t the case today, clearly; and many enlightened people blame it on excessive concentration of power not just in the hands the Centre but at every possible level.
Centralisation and diversity
Centralisation and diversity are mutually exclusive.
Therefore, the country first needs a blueprint that allows its uniquely diverse energies to be released, optimised and used for a creative thrust towards growth and development. All this begins, but does not end, with more powers to states. In other words, our current blueprint — the Constitution — needs not patchwork but a comprehensive surgical intervention, or “a drastic recast”, as Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal put it at the meeting.
Goal of infinite decentralisation
But it doesn’t stop there. The next obvious step would have to be for states to decentralise their authority to civic bodies.
The true goal of federalism is an infinite decentralisation, empowering states and then local institutions, no matter how representative or democratic those might be; the final goal is to empower the individual. And federalism from the top is just the beginning.
Creating a bogey
Unfortunately, we are stuck in confusion at the very start. I was amused to read a reaction to Mr Badal’s demand by one of our former colleagues, who quickly culled out the till recently controversial Anandpur Sahib Resolution and waved it at the CM.
Little do some folks realise that the resolution itself had been “de-controversialised” by (then prime minister) Rajiv Gandhi when he included it in the Punjab Accord and referred it to the Sarkaria Commission, which examined it in detail and acted on several of the recommendations. Creating a bogey will no longer sell even political hardware.
But the debate has started. If Narendra Modi the Prime Minister carries the convictions of Narendra Modi the chief minister on federalism into the PMO, the country will have a lot to thank him for.
(The writer is adviser, media and national affairs, to Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal. The views expressed are personal).