The near unanimous resolution passed by the Kerala legislative assembly against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is a sign of the unease and tension that has crept into the federal arrangement between states and the Centre. The Narendra Modi government had brushed aside the reservations that a cross-section of the Opposition and civil society expressed over the new citizenship law. At least seven states, including NDA-ruled Bihar, have since announced that they will not implement the CAA. The Kerala assembly resolution, which describes the CAA as being against “the basic values and principles” of the Constitution, indicates that the Union government continues to ignore the opposition of state governments at its own peril. The Centre needs to engage with the dissenting states and listen to their legitimate concerns about the Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens. Its attempt to read the opposition to the Act in a legalistic manner misses the big picture.
The emergence of the BJP as the main pole of the polity since 2014 has accentuated the tension that always existed between the Centre and the states. Under Modi and Amit Shah, the BJP has pushed the agenda of subsuming India’s several diversities — religious, ethnic, linguistic, dietary, among others — under the rubric of One India. It evidently believes that the electoral endorsement it has received nationally also indicates public acceptance of its ideological project. The pushback from the states is, however, a reflection of the discomfort that significant sections of the population have about the party’s aggressive push towards all-round homogenisation. The BJP has been losing assembly elections, and even allies, as it privileges its unitary impulses and ignores regional concerns. Regionalism, like subnationalism, is a persistent presence in Indian politics, which the Centre needs to engage with — it resonates in regions as diverse as Kashmir, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. Attempts to impose the Centre’s will at the cost of regional sentiments have provoked extreme anxieties in the past.
The onus is on the Centre to ensure that its relations with the states are not frayed. The CAA-NRC debate has threatened to reopen communal faultlines, and the states seem acutely conscious of this. Instead of reading the letter of the Constitution to states to emphasise the supremacy of Parliament in legislation, the Union government needs to also abide by the Constitution’s spirit, and respond sensitively to the federal pushback.
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