Reluctant federalistshttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/reluctant-federalists/

Reluctant federalists

Almost every party,not just the Congress,is guilty of violating the federal spirit

Almost every party,not just the Congress,is guilty of violating the federal spirit

The long-standing maxim of fashion — sooner or later,everything comes back in style — could not have been more appropriate for any other issue of Indian politics than Centre-state relations. The issue around which the politics of the 1970s and ‘80s revolved is once again making big news. A number of the UPA 2 proposals,including the Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence (Access to Justice and Reparations) Bill 2011,Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill 2011,National Commission for Human Resources for Health (NCHRH) Bill 2011,Border Security Force (Amendment) Bill 2011,the setting up of the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) and the issue of Central Sales Tax (CST) compensation,have all hit the same wall. They have received flak on the grounds that the Centre,and the Congress in particular,is trying to destabilise the federal structure by undermining the powers and position of state governments.

With the federal issue cropping up so frequently,questions will be asked as to whether the supposed inauguration of a new era of cooperative federalism under federal coalitions was a mirage. Given the Congress’s historical reluctance to embrace federalism and the past experience with Congress-led governments at the Centre,the threat of the Centre trying to usurp the powers of the states appears real.

The Inter-State Council (ISC),set up in 1990 following the recommendations of the Sarkaria Commission,is eminently qualified to make a contribution in today’s scenario. Unfortunately,it has been lying dormant for many years,with its last meeting held in 2006. Not surprisingly,the ISC has been convened more frequently when non-Congress governments controlled the Centre. The full ISC did not meet even once during P.V. Narasimha Rao’s tenure and it met only twice during the UPA 1 regime. The UPA 2,despite so many federal tensions,has not bothered to use this mechanism until now. The ISC’s poor status is further reflected in the fact that it does not even have a full-time secretary. While this may reveal the Congress’s priorities,does it make the party the only reluctant federalist as it is often made out to be? Not really. Going by past experience,there is probably only a difference of degree between different parties on the federal dimension.

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Mamata Banerjee,J. Jayalalithaa and Nitish Kumar,who are championing the cause of states today,are no real federalists. These defenders of state rights have had no qualms in using central intervention powers to suit the interests of their respective parties. As allies in the 1998-99 BJP-led coalition,the Trinamool Congress,the AIADMK and the Samata Party had pressured the Centre to dismiss the then West Bengal,Tamil Nadu and Bihar governments respectively. As a placatory measure,in clear violation of the federal spirit,central fact-finding teams from the Union home ministry visited the three states to ostensibly assess the law and order situation.

The BJP too did not cover itself in glory by going along with these demands and subsequently trying to impose President’s Rule not once but twice in Bihar. Why then is the federal spirit being invoked selectively?

The BJP-led state governments in Karnataka and Gujarat have had issues with the office of the governor in the recent past. Similarly,this paper reported that the Centre has stalled nearly 20 bills (some for more than two years) passed by BJP-ruled states,either because the governor has kept them pending or because presidential assent is delayed.

It was during the BJP-led NDA rule that the recommendations of the Sarkaria Commission were discussed and accepted. The commission had clearly laid down norms regarding the appointment and functioning of governors. It also spelt out the scope of discretion available to the Union executive under Article 201,with regard to the reservation of bills. What stopped the NDA from institutionalising these recommendations? It may have prevented H.R. Bhardwaj from moving almost seamlessly from the law ministry to the Raj Bhavan. It would have also saved Sushma Swaraj the trouble of having to lead a delegation to the president,seeking assent for seven bills relating to Madhya Pradesh.

State-based parties from Tamil Nadu have been among the strongest votaries of greater autonomy and more power for states. As early as 1969,the DMK government set up the Rajamannar Committee to examine the issue of Centre-state relations. The committee’s recommendations subsequently formed the core of the DMK’s memorandum to the Sarkaria Commission. For nearly two decades now,since the minority Narasimha Rao government in 1991 that depended on the outside support of the AIADMK,every government at the Centre has had either the DMK or the AIADMK as part of the governing coalition. Why has the DMK,which has been in power at the Centre continually for more than a decade,not sought any restructuring,despite having a clear-cut philosophy on Centre-state relations?

The Congress alone,therefore,cannot be accused of being insensitive to the federal dimension. Almost everyone across the spectrum is guilty,some simply by way of association. However,what explains this duality? When political parties are close to power at the Centre they see “what they like” and when they are removed from power they see only “what they dislike”.

The point that our adversarial parliamentary system encourages conflictual positions on almost every issue,including Centre-state relations,is an inadequate explanation. Politics is not about outcomes alone. Normative institutional theories have long stressed that outcomes often matter less than the process of decision-making. Our tragedy lies in the inadequate institutionalisation of practices and conventions that could have developed a federal culture and a vibrant federal polity. For this,there obviously needs to be greater and genuine investment by all. Without it,we are likely to witness endless reruns of the same show with minor alterations.

The writer is with the Department of Political Science at Panjab University,Chandigarh,express@expressindia.com