The debate on federalism should not be just about the size of states.
The democratically deficient manner in which the Telangana bill was passed in Parliament speaks volumes about the ineptitude and poor handling of a long-standing federal issue by the UPA 2 government at its departing moment. When placed in relation to its predecessor — the NDA— which was quite adept at creating three new states in 2000, UPA 2’s score is dim.
That said, credit is due to the Congress party for successfully redrawing the political map of India through the right-sizing of states in many phases since the early 1950s. The Indian Constitution (Articles 2 and 3) contains rather liberal provisions that empower the Union government in this regard. Language was the most emotive factor in such right-sizing drives. Ruefully, neither language nor underdevelopment (going by the Srikrishna committee report) is the factor that has been stirring political emotion behind the Telangana imbroglio. The issues are more deeply rooted in history and culture, and politics of a certain kind.
The Congress government led by the late Narasimha Rao was the main architect of India’s post-1991 reforms, which radically changed the direction of Indian federalism. Although one hardly finds the term “federalism” in the Constitution, a minimalist version of federalism is embedded in it — more than two tiers of government with well-defined jurisdictions; a written Constitution with a detailed list of powers and functions for each tier of government; and an independent judiciary with the Supreme Court as the final arbiter and guardian of the Constitution.
The third tier refers to the autonomous district councils to be governed by the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. Such bodies are considered part of asymmetric federal arrangements, which are also found in many other federations. Post-1992 structural reforms that institutionalised local self-government, rural and urban, have added a systemic third tier to the Indian federal model of governance.
Since the Rao government’s term, two very distinctive changes have determined the tenor of India’s federal politics and governance. First, the economy overall has been liberalised — the market has been provided with greater space and autonomy relative to the state. Today, only about one-fifth of India’s GDP is produced in the public sector, compared to the mid 1980s when the private sector’s share was only about 15 per cent. Second, since the mid 1990s, the states have been involved, through various means, in the reforms process for strategic reasons. They also compete to attract foreign and domestic investment, trade and commerce. Inter-state cooperation, which the founding fathers of the Constitution designed as a cementing bond for building a federal (read: national) loyalty, has given way to inter-state “jurisdictional conflicts”. That is to continued…