Updated: June 17, 2021 8:29:17 am
Recent assembly elections threw up three strong state governments that can alter Centre-state relations. Besides having fairly strong majorities, these governments, in contrast to some others, are politically and ideologically awake to the idea of the state’s autonomy. How will this affect the prospects of India’s federalism?
The Indian case for federalism is strong, but the Indian practice of federalism is weak. This is less due to a centralising constitutional architecture and more because of the lack of appreciation about what federal practice can do for democracy and unity. Ironically, federal practice becomes weaker particularly when it is required more. When parts of the country are restless over their identities, policy response tends to turn more into a hardline non-federal approach. When national leadership emerges as larger-than-life, federal practices are eclipsed.
The new regime brought in by the BJP did invoke the federal principle during its 2014 campaign; however, it was quickly banished from practice not just because the regime is sceptical of states’ powers but also because, by its very character, it has been averse to sharing of power. Historically, federal practice has coincided with the rise of state parties. They have usually adopted a federalist stand for pragmatic reasons. If the federalism of state parties appears opportunistic, the federalism of the Congress under the UPA was more out of compromise and helplessness. This background helps us understand the expectations of federalisation amid the current wave of centralisation.
While one important aspect of India’s federalism, the special provision for Jammu & Kashmir, was done away with after the second victory of 2019, the regime had already begun corroding federal practices by destabilising non-BJP state governments. The pandemic became the most effective legitimation of centralisation so far. It was a test of India’s federal dynamics in that it required both central initiative and autonomy of state-specific responses. Instead, it saw centralisation where not required and abdication by the Centre when required the most.
This resulted in states asking the Centre to take up responsibilities, allowing the Centre to become more overbearing. Politically, the central government has been more or less successful in ensuring that citizens will now blame their respective state governments and the Centre would be free to claim credit for relief measures, provisioning of medical facilities and coordinating vaccination.
How can the states retrieve their autonomy? One can imagine four routes to a return to a semblance of federal politics — fiscal strength, governance, political strength and regional identity. As India’s economy declines and faces crises, it is unlikely that the Centre would agree to more resources to states. Nor would states have the skills to genuinely exercise fiscal autonomy. With every cyclone and flood, the clamour will be for more “aid”, making states severely dependent on a vengeful Centre. The most effective terrain where states can assert autonomy and compete with the Centre is that of governance. But the record of states here is not very attractive. Kerala may claim a decent handling of the pandemic or West Bengal seems to have delivered better on some welfare schemes, but overall, both the Congress and non-Congress/non-BJP governments cannot advertise themselves in matters of governance nor claim a better record on democratic practice.
As far as political autonomy is concerned, it would be difficult for the states to reclaim that territory with the unprecedented interference in state administrations and the fear instilled among state bureaucracies. Besides, non-BJP parties are themselves centralised as much as the BJP. State parties are probably even more so and hence averse to the principle of power sharing. They thus become weak political sources for demanding autonomy. Slogans of autonomy may be good for grandstanding, but the autonomy of a Jaganmohan Reddy or a KCR or a Mamata Banerjee would produce neither federalisation nor democratisation.
Thus, states can only go back to emotional platforms of regional pride — something the Trinamool Congress did during the elections. Punjab and Maharashtra have been tamely attempting to ride this platform for a while. As the instances of Punjab of the 1980s, Tamil Nadu, J&K or Nagaland would show, regionalist platforms require political skills, else regionalism becomes counterproductive. Instead of strengthening regional autonomy, it becomes a tool for more centralisation and repression. The current federal deadlock, however, leaves little room for states except the route of regionalism in spite of the challenges and risks.
While the newly elected Tamil Nadu government is indeed making efforts to steer the debate to economic issues, the politics of federalism is bound to remain confined to regional identity issues. Interfering governors, central deputations to favoured officers, personal slights against state leadership, or the impatient emphasis on Hindi, would be the flashpoints which states will appropriate for consolidating regional pride.
If we roughly distribute states on the twin axes of the politics of regionalism and federal confrontations with the Centre, we shall find more states located high on the former than states engaged in the latter. The majority of states today are marked by low intensity regionalism and low intensity federal confrontation. If states now move from there to high intensity regionalism, then regionalism will be an issue that the Centre will have to negotiate. This pathway might not in itself consolidate federal politics but it has the potential of driving politics toward federalisation — even BJP-ruled states are not averse to regional sentiments, as in Karnataka or Haryana and probably Bihar.
This new possible wave of the politics of regionalism faces two critical hurdles. One is that the politics of regional identity is isolationist by nature. Each region gets entangled more into its separate existential and imaginary glory rather than coordinating with other regions vis-à-vis an intrusive Centre. In the last seven years, non-BJP parties and governments have consistently failed in evolving a durable or impactful forum or even casual conversation on Centre-state relations. The second hurdle is the political savvy of the BJP. The BJP has been selling a pan-Hindutva with regional variations. Long ago, it experimented with this route by first enlarging the issue of Gujarati asmita and then conflating it with Hindutva. That is exactly what the party experimented with successfully in Assam but failed to implement in West Bengal. So, an imminent rise of regionalist sentiment is nevertheless not a guarantee of federal consolidation or a Centre-state equilibrium.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 18, 2021 under the title ‘Regional without federal’. The writer, based at Pune, taught political science and is chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics
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