The demand for special status by backward states like Bihar and Orissa is touted as a fight for rights,but while viewing it through the prism of the advancing Lok Sabha elections,one cannot ignore the impact of this exercise.
CM Nitish Kumar,who first initiated the campaign for special status to Bihar,is on the verge of breaking away from the NDA and is cosying up to the Congress. Orissa CM Naveen Patnaik,on the other hand,is angling for a Third Front kind of option. West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee earlier pulled out of the UPA after her demand for a special package from the Centre was kept pending.
Of deeper concern,however,is that such demands and the Centres warm response to revisiting backwardness criteria through a high-powered panel could unsettle norms of distribution of central resources,especially in a coalition era.
Of course,officials in the Planning Commission contend that recommendations of the committee headed by Chief Economic Advisor Raghuraman Rajan will have to be cleared by the Cabinet as well as the National Development Council. And that statistics cannot be manufactured and that there is merit in the Bihar demand.
Yet,the political message behind the bonhomie that Congress ministers are sharing with Nitish in the past few months is not lost on anyone. Finance Minister P Chidambaram had a two-hour car ride with Nitish last month from Rajgir to Patna,after which the announcement on revising backward criteria was made.
There is unease in sections of the Planning Commission establishment,and rightly so ,that giving in to demands from Bihar and Orissa can trigger similar demands from other states. Goa is another state,for example,which has now sought special status.
It would do well to remember that Assam got the resource distribution criteria changed in 1996 when the government,through the Planning Commission,decided to set aside 10 per cent of budgetary allocation of all ministries for spending in the Northeast. Any unspent amount was to be put in a non-lapsable fund. The AGP,a key ally of the then H D Deve Gowda government,was behind the move. If a weak government supported by many allies comes to power at the Centre,such concerns will only get amplified.
Swaraj is a senior assistant editor based in Delhi