How worried should India be about the latest expressions of southern discontent? Ostensibly the terms of reference of the 15th Finance Commission has triggered of a new wave of anxiety amongst South Indian states. Two related claims undergird this anxiety. First, that giving greater weight to the 2011 census in funds allocation will penalise the southern states for better performance and second, the growing public articulation of claims that somehow a dynamic and progressive South is subsidising a laggard and reactionary North. Taken on their own, both of these claims are par for the course. Post GST, India’s fiscal federalism is up for renegotiation. As Pranay Kotasthane from Takshshila Institute pointed out, the real challenge for the Finance Commission will less be the North-South disparity, but fiscal federalism and the power of the states more generally, where the balance is again tilting towards the Centre.
The second argument is worrying, not because it is an accurate description of the complex economic relationship between the North and the South. It is worrying because it reflects an increasing alienation between North and South in political discourse. When there is underlying trust, even big practical differences can be resolved. On the other hand, when distrust is growing, all facts will be magnified to fuel discontent. There is a diffuse, somewhat inchoate, sense that the politically-articulated cultural rift between the North and South is growing. It is anxieties about identity that will shape the factual narratives, not the other way round. The “South” is, of course, hardly a unified political category. And the discontent may not seem significant now. But it could snowball into something bigger if not handled with good judgment.
Renegotiations of regional identities are routine in any culturally complex society. But there is reason to think that this moment poses special risks that might provide fertile ground for exacerbating North-South divisions. First, the rise of Hindutva and the BJP’s attempt at political dominance will generate its own counter pressures. There is no question that the BJP’s formidable political machine has great capabilities and can expand its base even in the South. But the dominant cultural idiom of BJP politics is still identified with the politics of the BJP in the Hindi heartland: A faux Sanskritisation, combined with a lumpen-ness and a coarse patriotism. The issue is hardly Hinduism: Hinduism has never been under threat in most of India. The issue is a cultural repertoire in which the confluence of Hindutva and Nationalism is imagined, and one that is deeply unsettling. Resistance to this will take the form of greater regional assertion. You cannot raise the temperature on cultural issues nationally without everyone else catching a fever as well.
Second, southern politics has itself been stuck in a rut. Contrary to claims of southern progressivism, caste politics is perhaps even more deeply pronounced and entrenched in South. There is deep violence associated with caste all over India. But, even at the risk of generalisation, one can say that in the North, caste identities are more cynical. But in states like Tamil Nadu, despite, impressive development indicators, the grip of the cultural politics of caste is still strong and vice-like. What papered it over was the creation of subnationalism that needed its own “other”, and party systems like the DMK and AIADMK that could channel caste politics in organised forms, and use that for bargaining at the national level. But just like the BJP thinks nationalism needs renewal, it is inevitable that the regions will think subnationalism needs renewal — where these go from being lightly worn facts to passionate axes of mobilisation. Even in Kerala, which probably had the strongest form of subnational identity, internal divisions are beginning to wreck the state. So subnationalism will respond to two dynamics: Northern hegemony as a possible trope, and internal social division within these states as a possible threat. Subnationalism will be an answer to both. But more importantly, as the older party systems weaken, the temptation of new groups or older parties to cement their political place by radicalising subnationalism also grows. New leaders will carve out their identities by becoming regional icons. So the risk is that at this moment you have a national political formation which is not the most adept at managing cultural difference, and party structures in states that are more fragile. Under such conditions, a more anxiety-ridden subnationalism can be more tempting.
Third, there is the fact of political centralisation. The BJP by ideology and practice is a centralising party. No matter how much fiscal or administrative decentralisation a government attempts, if different states are locked into the same party structure the net effect will be to concentrate more power at the Centre. It is also the case that this government’s penchant for thinking that India cannot be made, unless the Centre gets credit for it, is now also administrative practice. The entire gamut of practices, from monitoring district-level projects from the Centre to creating more and more central schemes, is a testament to the fact that cooperative federalism, in a centralised dominant system will always mean cooperation on the Centre’s terms (this is irrespective of party). Even the fears that Finance Commission might tilt the balance more towards the Centre is borne out of this experience.
Managing federal differences was easier in coalition governments because there was a sense in which all the state did genuinely became a part of the Centre. From the late Nineties till 2009, there was also immense optimism about the broader India story. India’s actual story was very messy. But a hopeful politics, with lots of institutions providing checks and balances, with genuine power-sharing, could accommodate differences. But a resentful politics will, in the long run, generate deep anxieties. The southern gauntlet is just an opening salvo.
Renegotiating balance of power and new forms of cultural identity are all routine activities in politics. But they acquire more explosive potential when this negotiation takes place under three conditions: The political existence of a project of cultural hegemony, a fluid party system at the state level, and greater state centralisation. Right now this discontent seems only fleeting. But it would be a mistake to reduce it to the mere technicalities of a Finance Commission mandate. There is more psychological and cultural anxiety fuelling it. And it would be a mistake to underestimate how quickly cultural anxieties can snowball into a potent political force, in an age marked by fragile and uncertain identities on the one hand, and mean and ungenerous leaders on the other.
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