The Telugu Desam supremo, N T Rama Rao, once famously declared, “the Centre is a conceptual myth.” If Prime Minister Narendra Modi had not made his repeated post-lockdown appearances on television, most citizens dealing with the threat of COVID-19 and the challenge of the lockdown may well have felt the same way. From ensuring supply of water, food, electricity and health care to law and order, the government that a citizen deals with is the state government. Only in Delhi the police are under the Centre’s charge. The management of a sub-continental lockdown has brought into focus the role of state governments, their uneven capacities and capabilities and varying quality of provincial leadership — both political and bureaucratic.
There is a growing body of opinion that in the post-COVID world most countries will see governments playing a larger role in shaping people’s lives and determining their livelihoods. The return of big government and the prospect of a potentially larger role for the state in the economy raises the question, certainly in India, of what it would mean for Centre-state relations, and for national and provincial politics. The central government’s role will no doubt be important in the handling of the economic and financial aftermath, in reviving inter-state movement of people and goods, in re-negotiating international economic treaties to make them relevant to the new situation and so on. However, the immediate challenge of public health and medical care, as well as the continued supply of necessities, will remain the responsibility of state governments.
The manner in which the central and state governments resolve the problem of inadequate fiscal resources, given falling revenues due to the slowdown and rising claims on the public exchequer, will be a key issue in Centre-state relations. Several chief ministers have been complaining about the Centre’s lack of fiscal nerve, resolve and imagination in helping states. Kerala Finance Minister Thomas Isaac has dubbed it “crazy macroeconomics” (‘Ahead of the Covid curve’, IE, April 17). The Fifteenth Finance Commission, already given an extension and saddled with additional terms of reference, may have to look de novo at many new issues in federal finance given the fiscal imperatives of a post-COVID economy.
Given the constitutional division of responsibilities between the Centre and states, one issue that has fallen between two stools is the entire question of internal migration and the economic and social interests of domestic migrant labour. Historically, both home and host states have not acted responsibly in dealing with the welfare of migrant labour. Many states have, in fact, discriminated against migrant labour. The COVID lockdown has brought their welfare to the fore. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ill-advisedly dissolved the National Development Council, but the problem of migration and migrant labour, especially in the current context, is a fit subject for a federal forum like the NDC to discuss.
Indian politics today presents a balance between the centripetal pull of the BJP’s Hindu nationalism and the centrifugal pull of regionalism. The management of the lockdown and its aftermath will determine the balance of power not just between Centre and the states, but between alternative political platforms. If chief ministers succeed in demonstrating their competence and compassion to their constituents, they can weaken the national base of a populist PM. Modi would surely be aware of this. In part, his media outreach may well be defined by his need to occupy public mind space at a time when most citizens are, in fact, turning to local political leadership for liberation from the lockdown.
In his first term, Prime Minister Modi was able to keep national attention focused on his foreign and economic policy initiatives as well as on national security and defence – all areas within the purview of the Centre and offering the PM the space to act. Modi’s second term got off to a wrong start with public attention focused on law and order, questions of citizenship and personal health. These issues have opened up political space for provincial leadership. Not only has the profile of non-BJP chief ministers like K Chandrashekar Rao and Pinarayi Vijayan gone up, but even BJP chief ministers like Yogi Adityanath seem to have acquired a political personality of their own. At the same time, the unsure start of PM Modi’s second term, damaged by a variety of factors, has made a PM with more numbers less sure of himself, mimicking the experience of the second Manmohan Singh government.
Ideally, at a time like this, any PM would want to shift public attention back to foreign affairs and national security to burnish his national image. However, the current economic and fiscal situation at home and globally offers little space for significant diplomatic initiatives. Most governments will remain focused on domestic affairs and policies. This policy context opens up the space for provincial leaders.
During the “era of coalitions” — from 1989 to 2014 — Centre-state relations were shaped by the decentralised politics of that period in which prime ministers were dependent on chief ministers both for their survival in office and to ensure delivery of public services and national initiatives. The arrival in office of a single party government, that too one headed by a domineering personality who has centralised governance while advocating “cooperative federalism”, suggested for a while that Indian politics was moving in the direction of greater centralisation of policy initiative.
Ironically, however, the ability of regional parties to retain their base and the resurgence of the Congress party in some states, thanks to provincial leaders rather than the party’s First Family, has created a dual power structure wherein chief ministers have become powerful functionaries once again. It used to be like this in the early 1950s and later in the early 1970s when, first under Jawaharlal Nehru and then under Indira Gandhi, the country saw a powerful PM working with powerful CMs. Since the 1990s, a succession of relatively weak PMs have had to work with relatively powerful CMs. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh handled this situation by frequently interacting with CMs and regularly convening CMs’ conferences. It was the COVID crisis that finally forced Modi to engage the CMs in an organised manner.
In the coming months, the focus of public policy will perforce shift to areas where state governments and provincial leaders will have to play a larger role. The only way in which the central government can re-assert its developmental role would be through massive public spending and investment. How competently that is done will have its own consequences for economic growth, political stability and Centre-state relations.
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 21, 2020 under the title ‘Spotlight on the states’. The writer is a policy analyst and former media advisor to Prime Minister of India.