In Vadodara on Sunday, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned states that those “opposed to development” would not receive “a single rupee” from the NDA government at the Centre, he struck a jarring note. To begin with, language matters, particularly at a time of political polarisation and especially during election season, when the lines are drawn sharper between the parties of government and Opposition. In such a climate, the PM’s warning could well be read as a threat in state capitals ruled by non-BJP parties. Then, the division of resources between the Centre and states is determined by the constitutional compact, not by the whim or benevolence, or lack of it, of the PM. Moreover, in a diverse and multi-layered federal polity, “development” is a contested term, as is “public interest”. If these are to become the criteria for giving and withholding Central funds to states, the question would legitimately be: Who decides? The Centre or the elected state governments? Any understanding of the letter and spirit of “cooperative federalism” — that the BJP-led NDA and Prime Minister Modi himself are known to swear by — would respect the mandate of the elected governments, including those run by Opposition parties, to decide what works best in the states.
After the Modi-BJP swept to power at the Centre in 2014, it promised a renewed balance between the Centre and the states, more sensitive to the latter’s concerns. This was, in part, in tune with the BJP’s broader pledge to right the wrongs of (Congress) history. It also seemed to follow from Modi’s own journey — from being a thrice elected chief minister of Gujarat to PM of India. The slogans of “cooperative federalism” and “competitive federalism” were, first and foremost, underpinned by the democratic notion of greater autonomy to states vis a vis the Centre. Looking back, the first few steps of the NDA government did live up to its boasting — for instance, the abolition of the Planning Commission and its replacement with a less centralised process in the Niti Aayog, and the biggest ever increase in the share of states from the Central divisible pool of taxes. Very soon, however, questions began to arise about whether, in practice and on the ground, the BJP’s will to power was coming in the way of its will to share power. This doubt and apprehension was only underlined by, among other things, the Centre imposing President’s Rule in states like Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh.
It is possible that the PM’s speech in Vadodara is only campaign rhetoric in a poll-bound state. Hopefully, it does not signal a further retreat by the BJP from its federal promise, at a time when, even on other fronts and in different arenas, its government at the Centre is inviting accusations of using its majority to have its way.