Centre and states should work with cohesion
The conclusion of the state elections is a good time to consider the health of Indian federalism, to question whether the division of power between the central government and state governments is skewed in favour of the Centre. India needs to be federal to live with its diversity, to prevent the central government becoming over-mighty, to devolve responsibility to the lowest level at which it can effectively be exercised, and to allow states to develop as they choose. Equally, matters like defence and the armed forces, currency, foreign policy, and the legal system need to be the domain of the central government. Ultimately it is the central government which has to provide and preserve the frame which holds the country together. So there has to be a balance between the autonomy of the states and the overriding powers of the Centre.
Ever since the Constitution was finalised, there have been critics who have said it is unbalanced in favour of the central government. The distinguished civil servant KB Lal, who served in the Indian Civil Service , the steel frame which held the British Raj together, and in the post-Raj Indian Administrative Service, described the Constitution as “centrist with federal trappings”. From the earliest day of the Republic, there haves been allegations that the central government is undermining the autonomy of the states. Dr Sampurnanand , who became chief minister of Uttar Pradesh as early as 1954, complained, “There is a steady attempt on the part of central ministries to encroach on the jurisdiction of the component states.”
Many of the 22 schemes launched by the present Prime Minister could be seen as encroachments on state governments’ jurisdiction. They do diminish the role of state governments in providing services such as health and housing. GST would also seem to be another encroachment on state governments’ autonomy. But it could be seen as an example of the cooperative federalism that Modi promised when he came to power. Although GST does severely restrict one of the fundamental rights of the states, the right to raise tax revenues, it does involve both sides sacrificing fiscal autonomy.
The politics of India represents a perpetual threat to federalism because the ruling party in the Centre always seeks opportunities to undermine Opposition governments in the states. The most blatant examples of this breach of federalism were the misuse of the powers of Governors, the centre’s representatives in the states, to dismiss opposition governments. This practice was severely restricted by the Bommai judgment of 1994, limiting the Governor’s power to recommend the imposition of President’s Rule. But central governments do still take advantage of fickle MLAs to destabilise state governments.
The current government’s proposal to hold central and state government elections simultaneously would have been a blow to federalism. The national issues in the central government elections would have tended to dominate the state elections rather than local and regional issues which should dominate them. There would have been a tendency for a swing in favour of a party in the national elections to be reflected in the state elections, and there might well have been prolonged periods of President’s Rule following the collapse of state governments.
The states’ most important role is to protect their own autonomy and thereby prevent the central government becoming over-mighty, but are they playing that role? The states can’t develop autonomously because they are unable to provide services such as health and education for themselves. In a column last month, I wrote about the loss of opportunities to develop caused by states regarding their own development boards as convenient parking places for politicians who can’t be accommodated in ministries. The Constitution defines members of the Rajya Sabha as representatives of the states. All too often, they are representatives of party headquarters. MLAs don’t take their own duties as legislators seriously . In 2017, the Uttar Pradesh Assembly sat for just 17 days.
If the states do not become more vigilant and efficient , more capable of protecting their autonomy, the Centre could well become over-mighty. Federalism would then be unbalanced with all the dangers that this entails for a diverse democracy.
The views expressed are personal