What Didi wants
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.
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 continued…