The assertion of Indian federalism gives hope
India’s Opposition chief ministers have emerged as unexpected allies in the battle against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and its possible companion, the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Days after Parliament passed the CAA, chief ministers from Punjab, Kerala, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, to name a few, took a resolute stand against the CAA and the NRC. As protests across the country gained strength, Naveen Patnaik and Nitish Kumar, whose parties voted for the CAA in Parliament, were forced to take a position against the NRC, taking the tally of the state governments opposed to the NRC up to 11.
The impact of this resistance may have its limits. Citizenship is a Union government subject, and states have no role in determining the legal framework. They are, however, entrusted with the task of implementing the law. In the current framework, the district collector has the authority to process applications for citizenship and forward them on for clearance to the home ministry, via the state government. Moreover, the state machinery is essential to administering the NRC. In principle, states can simply stop processing citizenship applications and refuse to deploy its machinery for the NRC, effectively impeding the process. But here is the catch. The CAA has inserted a clause that, for all practical purposes, empowers the central government to redraft implementation rules and create a direct chain of command with the “authority specified by it” to deal with citizenship applications of persecuted minorities — thus bypassing state government authority. Added to this, most state governments, with the exception of West Bengal, are yet to take a stand on the National Population Register (NPR), approved by the Union Cabinet last week, which effectively serves as the foundation for the NRC.
Regardless, the political symbolism of this resistance is significant. This is the first time that chief ministers have collectively taken a strong, vocal stand against the Narendra Modi government’s agenda, and asserted their federal rights. Could this be a turning point in India’s current journey towards majoritarianism? As the battle against the CAA and the NRC rages on, will states emerge as a countervailing force to the centralising authoritarianism of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)?
Despite the rhetoric of “co-operative”, “competitive” federalism, since coming to office in 2014, the Modi government has carefully sought to centralise political, administrative and financial powers with relatively meek opposition from states. After its re-election in May 2019, the government embarked on far more aggressive agenda of centralisation — one that seeks to impose a unitary notion of citizenship and identity. The first and most significant step in this direction was the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019. Beyond the specific context of Kashmir, the move to strip Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status and downgrade the state of Jammu and Kashmir to a Union Territory undermined the central tenet of India’s federal aspiration — the aspiration to peacefully accommodate India’s multiple linguistic, ethnic and religious identities.
Despite the enormity of the events of August 2019, and the challenge they presented to the sanctity of India’s federal aspiration, most state governments and regional parties actively supported the Modi government’s decision. In fact, in August, as I wrote in these pages, India had embarked on a dangerous journey toward centralisation. Federalism had few takers and even state governments had failed to fight its cause.
The last few weeks have witnessed a reversal in this trend. The core message emanating from the surge of protests across the country is of a categorical rejection of the unitary notion of citizenship being imposed by the BJP, and a reclamation of India’s pluralism. It is through this reclamation that India’s federal aspiration is witnessing a resurgence. State governments have been quick to respond to protests, asserting their federal rights, and taking a stand against the CAA and the NRC.
This resurgence of federalism comes against the backdrop of the BJPs loosening grip on power in states. Voters are increasingly beginning to respond to the state and national politics with different impulses. Trends in the last three state elections (Jharkhand, Haryana and Maharashtra) seem to indicate that state elections are becoming increasingly “local” where contestations are being defined by state-specific issues. And, as we learnt from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in December 2018, unlike in previous election cycles, voter preferences in state elections changed dramatically when voting for the national government. For the first time in decades, national and state politics are beginning to look very different. One way to interpret this emergent trend is as a sign of a deepening of federalism.
State elections are now emerging as the primary site for asserting localised identity claims that the BJP’s extremely centralised party structure, and its majoritarian idea of India, has had difficulty responding to — remember Amit Shah’s brief flirtation with the idea of Hindi as the national link language. And, arguably, it is these electoral shifts that have emboldened the state governments to reassert their federal rights and challenge the BJP.
But these early signs of resurgence must be viewed with cautious optimism. In the face of increased resistance, it is likely that the BJP will harden its ideological stance and deepen its centralising instincts in the fiscal and administrative arena, leaving states with little room for manoeuvre. Resistance will require more than grandstanding and statements in support of India’s secular, plural fabric. States will have to take a principled stance against the BJP’s attempts to consolidate majoritarian identity, and articulate a convincing ideological alternative anchored in federalism and secularism even as it risks “vote banks”. Are states up to the task?
Yamini Aiyar is president and chief executive, Centre for Policy Research
The views expressed are personal