India’s journey towards centralisation | Opinion
In abrogating Article 370, Article 35A and bifurcating the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has not just radically altered the Indian Union’s constitutional relationship with the people of J&K, but also unsettled India’s delicate federal balance. Events of this last week — the undemocratic manner in which the J&K reorganisation bill was passed in Parliament, the silencing of voices of those affected by these actions, and the unprecedented move to convert a recognised state into a Union Territory (UT) — mark a rupture in India’s federal trajectory. India is now firmly on the path to centralisation of power and may well be inching toward transforming into a unitary rather than federal state.
Written against the backdrop of Partition, India’s Constitution adopted a unique brand of federalism that strove to strike a delicate balance between unitary and federal systems. The framers of India’s constitution had to negotiate two conflicting tensions while designing the contours of India’s federal system. On the one hand, the immediate historical context of Partition created the imperative for a strong central government that could pursue the task of nation building and democratic consolidation, unencumbered. At the same time, there was the recognition that India’s diversity of language, region and religion, a diversity that was intrinsic to India’s national identity, could only be preserved through federal accommodation. To balance these competing tensions, India’s federal system combined unitary and federal elements.
The central government was given wide-ranging powers, akin to most unitary systems. These include the power to redraw state boundaries and emergency powers to dismiss state governments and impose the will of the Centre through presidential rule. This strong Centre coexisted with a number of unique federal arrangements (or what political scientists have termed asymmetrical federalism) designed to accommodate the specific linguistic, regional, and more recently, ethnic assertions of statehood by offering varying degrees of autonomy from the Centre. It is in this context of balancing federal accommodation with strong central powers that Article 370 (and the far less discussed, but equally significant, Article 371 that makes special provisions for many other states and regions) was adopted and implemented.
Over time, these federal arrangements resulted in increased political decentralisation. By the 1990s, regional parties emerged as significant players, shaping national politics and opening new sites for the democratic representation of India’s diverse identities. However, the asymmetrical federal arrangements were always tenuous. Specifically, in the context of Article 370, as is well known, from as early as 1954, successive Congress-led central governments used their unitary powers to hollow out its substantive provisions. What remained of Article 370, till August 5, was its symbolic political value, which beyond the specific context of Kashmir, embodied India’s larger federal aspiration: the aspiration of “unity in diversity”.
With the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35A, this federal aspiration has been substantially weakened in two significant ways. First, federalism has now been positioned as an impediment to development. Ideologically, the BJP has had little patience for asymmetric federalism and Article 370 has been argued to have sowed the roots of separatism. But, what is significant about this moment is the BJP’s use of the language of development and progress to legitimise its action. Substantive federalism, in this framing, sits in deep tension with the aspiration of development and progress. This was the core message in the prime minister’s address to the nation on Thursday, when he said, “Since the time Governor’s Rule has been in place, the administration has been in touch with the Central government. This is why good governance and development has been visible on ground. Schemes which earlier used to exist only on paper are now being implemented……in last few months of Governor’s rule……..irrigation and power projects, roads and rail connectivity, airport modernisation etc are moving at a fast pace.” Centralisation, this argument holds, can accelerate development even in the most difficult circumstances. And therefore, supporters of asymmetrical arrangements like Article 370 are “anti-Dalit, anti-tribal and anti-women”.
This language of development lies at the heart of the BJPs centralising project symbolised in “one nation” slogans that are regularly deployed . To accelerate development, India must become, “one nation, one election”, “one nation, one market”, “one nation, one ration card”, “one nation, one tax.” There may well be rational justification for greater centralisation in some instances, like the Goods and Services Tax and a national agricultural market, but these are being articulated through the political project of making India “one nation” as a necessary condition for development. And it is to further this project that India today is “one nation, one flag, and one Constitution”. There is no empirical evidence to support this claim. However, the political message is clear: federalism as a principle necessary for negotiating diverse political contexts and identity claims must play second fiddle to India’s developmental aspirations.
Second, the moral authority of regional parties to safeguard India’s federal system has been undermined. Since the 1990s, regional parties had begun to serve as a political check against the Delhi’s centralising instincts. States emerged as new sites for renegotiating the federal balance. But this week, with very few exceptions, regional parties too, came out in support of the abrogation of Article 370. In doing so, they have legitimised the argument that greater centralisation is necessary for development.
The irony of the Aam Aadmi Party supporting this move while fighting for full statehood in Delhi so that they can pursue their own developmental agenda is inescapable. Regional parties are now complicit in weakening India’s federalism. Federalism, that the framers of India’s Constitution saw as necessary to India’s democracy, today has far fewer takes than it did in 1947. This is dangerous for India’s democracy.
Yamini Aiyar is president and chief executive, Centre for Policy Research
The views expressed are personal