The frayed federal compact
The last time the scenic Lakshadweep islands made the national headlines, 24x7 private news television didn’t even exist. In 1987, the then Prime Minister (PM) Rajiv Gandhi’s New Year visit to the islands created a flutter over whether public money was being spent on a private family holiday.
This time, Lakshadweep is a major national story for even more far-reaching reasons — a spate of unilateral regulations by the Centre’s administrator has triggered fears of a “saffron agenda” among the local population. That the administrator, Praful Khoda Patel, is a former Gujarat minister and a close confidant of PM Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah has added a political twist. Since the strategically located islands have an overwhelming Muslim majority, anxieties over an attempted cultural “colonisation” are being voiced.
Whether it is new land and crime laws, lifting restrictions on alcohol consumption or restricting the sale of beef, there is a creeping Hindutva-versus-Islamism conflict that threatens the idyllic serenity of a land with a negligible crime rate and a population of just around 65,000. Why would anyone want to alienate and unsettle a tranquil petite edge of the country unless there is an obsessively centralising mindset that seeks to impose its political and ideological writ on every part of a diverse land?
This isn’t, then, just a battle between Delhi and distant Kavaratti. At the heart of the controversy lies a deeper crisis between a dominant “Big Boss” at the Centre and restive state leaderships across the country. Then, whether it is opposition state finance ministers objecting to resource distribution under the Goods and Services Tax, contentious farm laws being pushed through Parliament without wider consultation, an unseemly public spat over oxygen supplies, or the blame game on the vaccine policy, there is a marked strain in relations between the Modi government and state governments. Such is the trust deficit and suspicion of central agencies that more than half-a-dozen states have already withdrawn the “general consent” for Central Bureau of Investigations operations within their territory.
The most fraught example of the underlying tension spilling over into a potential constitutional crisis has been witnessed in West Bengal. Ever since Mamata Banerjee’s sweeping victory in the West Bengal assembly polls, the battlelines have been drawn between a defiant and ascendant state leadership and a wounded and embittered Centre. It is almost as if the ruling arrangement in Delhi has not forgiven Banerjee for giving the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a bloody nose in the polls, with the toxic edge of the campaign extending to daily administrative duties.
The latest example is the unprecedented face-off over the sudden home ministry order transferring the Bengal chief secretary to the Union, an order which an enraged chief minister (CM) rejected. A pandemic and cyclone calamity is no time for a political blame game, but the threat of an FIR against Bengal’s top bureaucrat appears a prima facie vindictive act by the Centre, stemming from allegations that CM and her officials kept the PM waiting for 15 minutes during his visit to the state to review the cyclone damage.
Even if CM is guilty of non-cooperation, the primary responsibility for a genuine outreach lies with the PM’s office. Banerjee deserves the respect due to a thrice-elected CM, and cannot be equated with a governor guilty of playing the worst form of partisan politics or the opposition leader whose only role appears to be to harangue CM. If Banerjee wanted a one-on-one meeting with the PM, it could have been arranged. Unfortunately, sharply competing egos and political one-upmanship leave little space for negotiation and consensus-building based on good faith.
Ironically, Modi himself has been a three-time CM. One of his perennial grouses as Gujarat CM was that the Congress-led Centre was constantly targeting him. In fact, in 2013, he pointedly skipped a National Integration Council meeting called by the then PM Manmohan Singh to discuss the communal violence bill. Modi was by then the BJP’s PM candidate and his supporters alleged that the meeting was called only to sabotage his political rise. On another occasion, Modi openly tangled with the Planning Commission, accusing it of disregarding the federal structure in its dealings with states.
Now, of course, Modi has dispensed with even the Planning Commission, one of the few institutions designed to resolve Centre-state conflicts in a rules-based manner. Instead, he directly summons and communicates with district magistrates on Covid-19 management via video conference while meetings with CMs, if the normally soft-spoken Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren is to be believed, are only meant for the PM ’s “mann ki baat” and not to listen to woes of CMs.
Is this really the cooperative federalism mantra the PM espouses or a reflection of a presidential-style, domineering national leadership that can’t tolerate dissent or any alternative power structure?
Post-script: Lakshadweep’s administrator says that he wants to lift the alcohol restrictions to unleash the tourism potential of the islands. Good idea, with one caveat. Would the former Gujarat minister propose a similar rule for his home state?
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal