Why India’s federal compact is eroding

Updated on Jun 02, 2022 09:27 PM IST

Conflict between the Centre and some states is growing and now spans revenue-sharing formula and the implementation of NEET. The idea of cooperative federalism is unfortunately tangled in competitive and self-destructive politics

A robust multi-party democracy such as India cannot be diminished to a single party, a single leader elected autocracy, where crucial decision-making is devoid of consultative processes. (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
A robust multi-party democracy such as India cannot be diminished to a single party, a single leader elected autocracy, where crucial decision-making is devoid of consultative processes. (Shutterstock)

In 2014, Narendra Modi became only the second Indian Prime Minister (PM) to ascend to the top post while being a sitting chief minister (HD Deve Gowda was the first). This is why when PM Modi spoke passionately of cooperative federalism, there was a sense that he genuinely wanted to reimagine the skewed balance of power between the Centre and state governments. Eight years later, that promise of a federal compact is falling apart, trapped in vindictive politics, mutual recrimination and the hubris of near-absolute power.

Last week, the PM was in Tamil Nadu, one of the few states in the country to have resisted the Modi juggernaut. Which is why it wasn’t surprising that in the presence of the PM, chief minister (CM) MK Stalin warned the central government to not impose Hindi on the state. The Tamil language is central to the Dravidian identity and by asserting its importance, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader was only drawing a lakshman rekha (inviolable line) in a long-running feud between Delhi and Chennai.

It’s not just the familiar North- South linguistic “wars”. South of the Vindhyas, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under PM Modi is perceived as a majority party of the Hindi heartland, wielding disproportionate power over decision-making. The BJP may have attempted to shake off its “Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan” narrative, but the reality is that its primary affiliation is tied to a typical north Indian political and cultural ethos. Moreover, the emergence of southern states such as Tamil Nadu as economic powerhouses has ignited a renewed self-confidence in distinctive regional identities, which can’t be subsumed under an overarching, homogenising Hindu Rashtra (nation) ideology.

A broader, more ominous Centre versus states conflict is raging on a range of issues, from revenue-sharing formulas and administrative controls to the implementation of the all-India National Eligibility cum Entrance Test medical exam. When finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman recently announced tax cuts on fuel and exhorted states to also reduce their taxes, several states refused to bite the bullet. The idea of the Centre “dictating” tax structures” appears increasingly unpalatable to states miffed by the Goods and Services Tax reducing their financial autonomy.

There is yet another sharpening cleavage: BJP versus non-BJP-ruled states. When, for example, the PM appeals to voters to support “double engine” governments, he effectively creates a stark hierarchy between the BJP and Opposition-ruled states. Election rhetoric can be discounted, but when at an official prime ministerial meeting with CMs on Covid-19 control in April, Opposition-ruled states are singled out for failing to bring down fuel taxes, the “us” versus “them” feeling gets heightened. Last year, Opposition states were blamed for the initial vaccination distribution mess. A clash of egos lies at the heart of this blame game: When vaccine certificates carry the PM’s face and every government scheme is identified with the persona of the PM, powerful CMs are bound to be put off. The growing friction is best exemplified in Bengal, where a brazenly partisan governor, Jagdeep Dhankhar, is in the midst of an almost daily tug of war with a combative CM Mamata Banerjee, to the point where the constitutional separation of powers is being systematically undermined.

The trust deficit is also widening because central enforcement agencies are hyperactive in Opposition-ruled states. Almost every Opposition CM and their aides are under the Enforcement Directorate’s watch. Is it the case that only Opposition leaders are crooked and the ruling BJP governments are populated with saints? Rather than provide any reassurance, the Centre has been dismissive of the Opposition’s charge of misuse of these agencies.

While an imperious Centre helmed by a Supreme Leader cult may feel emboldened to call the shots, thanks to a string of election victories, the institutional damage an asymmetry of power between the Centre and states could do is enormous. A robust multi-party democracy such as India cannot be diminished to a single party, a single leader elected autocracy, where crucial decision-making is devoid of consultative processes.

Ironically, one of the reasons PM Modi shut down the Planning Commission was that, as Gujarat CM, he didn’t want Delhi-based “non-elected” bureaucrats to dictate terms to “elected” leaders. Today, the Modi governance model encourages the same centralising tendencies that he once railed against as CM. The wheel is coming full circle.

Post-script: Taking a cue perhaps from the defiant Banerjee, Telangana CM K Chandrashekhar Rao avoided meeting the PM in Hyderabad last week by flying out to Bengaluru just ahead of the visit, where PM Modi accused the Telangana Rashtra Samithi chief of promoting “family raj”. In April, when the PM was conferred the first Lata Mangeshkar award in Mumbai, one-time ally, Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray, stayed away. This rupture in relations is worrying: Cooperative federalism is now tangled in viciously competitive and self-destructive politics.

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist, author and TV news presenter. His book 2014: The election that changed India is a national best seller that has been translated into half a dozen languages. He tweets as @sardesairajdeep

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