By: Rohit De
TMC’s call for a Federal Front is also a cry for Bengal’s relevance.
With general elections underway, there is talk of non-BJP, non-Congress alternatives. “Third Front is tired front,” declaims Mamata Banerjee, offering as an alternative the “Federal Front”, which, she argues, will deliver on the “unfulfilled promise of federalism in the Constitution”. “The Federal Front is the future. Whatever happens, will emerge only after elections,” she suggested last week. Most commentators have dismissed the Federal Front as Banerjee’s version of a Third Front minus the Left parties. However, by invoking the Federal Front, not only does the Trinamool Congress resurrect one of the oldest challenges to India’s mode of governance, it draws on past experiences of making Bengal relevant to national politics.
In 1950, the Constituent Assembly consciously chose to adopt a federal structure with a strong unitary bias. This built on the structure laid down by the colonial Government of India Acts, which provided for a powerful Centre under the viceroy to check the elected governments in the provinces. The first argument for a stronger Centre was linked to security, with the national leadership fearing that autonomy to states would lead to separatism or communal violence. Thus, states existed at the pleasure of the Centre, with Parliament having the power to redraw state boundaries without the consent of the state, and the president having the authority to dismiss a state government by proclaiming an emergency. The second argument was linked to development, where Nehru and the cabinet were doubtful of the ability of individual states to work towards transforming social and economic conditions.
Slowly but persistently, Nehru’s cabinet lobbied to move subjects like health, labour and social welfare, along with key industries like coal, iron and steel, from the list of state subjects to the Central and concurrent lists. The Constitution provided that several heads of revenue would be centrally pooled and distributed according to a formula determined by the Finance Commission, to the disadvantage of the three richest provinces — Bengal, Madras and Bombay.
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The UPA today embodies both these strands, by centralising governance processes (suspending the Delhi Assembly, creating Telangana despite objections from the state assembly) and social and economic development (the inauguration of a range of Central welfare schemes). A decade ago, the BJP was seen as a more federal-friendly coalition partner; due to its limited presence, it was not in direct competition with most regional parties. However, today, not only is the BJP’s footprint expanding, the experience of the NDA and its interventions in Parliament show that it shares the UPA’s vision of managing social and economic policy from the Centre. It is unclear whether Narendra Modi’s resistance to Central government policies was because of a commitment to federalism or a desire to protect his own turf. It is this context that makes the TMC’s call for more autonomy to provinces a radical one.
Why did the federalist vision fail in 1946? While there were some voices that spoke up for a Gandhian form of local self-government, a more robust federalism found few supporters in the Constituent Assembly. This was because a federal structure with more autonomy for provinces had been the demand of the Muslim League. The Muslim League was the original Federal Front. As Ayesha Jalal has shown, the League’s meteoric rise between 1939 and 1946 was partly due to Jinnah’s success in persuading leaders of powerful provincial parties, such as Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan in Punjab, G.M. Syed in Sindh and H.S. Suhrawardy and Khwaja Nazimuddin in Bengal, to concede national leadership to him in order to win greater provincial autonomy for the Muslim majority provinces. The Muslim League itself had few roots in the Muslim majority provinces, as evidenced by its rapid demise after Independence.
Bengal was the largest contributor to the Muslim League’s numbers in 1946, and its leaders were hard for even Jinnah to ignore. However, Partition reduced Bengal’s importance in national politics. As historian Joya Chatterji demonstrates, the provincial Bengali leadership in post-colonial India was quiescent and did not challenge the Central leadership in the hope of future rewards. This was in striking contrast to Ramaswami Mudaliar and K. Santhanam from Madras, Thakurdas Bhargava from Punjab and Biswanath Das from Orissa, who defied Congress party whips and fought for greater provincial autonomy.
The rise of the Left in Bengal meant that the third-most populous state in the country was under-represented in Central government and neglected in terms of largesse since the late 1960s. The state’s demographics make it difficult for any Bengal-centric party to form an alliance with the BJP. It is this context that makes Banerjee’s call for an eastern alliance (with the leaders of Bihar, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu) and the Federal Front an interesting one. If Bengali politicians had formed a strategic alliance with the other maritime provinces in 1946, the constitutional design would have been different. May 2014 might offer yet another opportunity to redraw the federal design.
The writer is a Mellon Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for History and Economics and Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge, UK