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Weakening of federalism

Mark Tully

The manner in which the changes in the status of Kashmir have been brought about raises questions about Indian federalism. What should the relationship be between states and the Union? In establishing that relationship, the Constituent Assembly had to balance between creating a Union with the power to hold the country together in uncertain times, and providing diverse states with sufficient autonomy to preserve their individual identity.

In his magisterial book on the Constitution, the historian Granville Austin described it as a “highly centralized federalism”. I once heard the distinguished civil servant and economist, LK Jha, who became governor of the Reserve Bank of India, call the Constitution “centrist with federal trappings”. But soon after the Constitution was passed, the movement for linguistic states demonstrated that the federalism needed to be strengthened. The language riots in Tamil Nadu were another warning against binding the Union and states too tightly. From the dismissal of the Kerala government in 1959 onwards, prime ministers blatantly flouted the Constitution’s federalism arrangement, by overthrowing state governments to suit their own politics. In 1994, the Supreme Court’s judgment in the case of the dismissal of the Karnataka government put strict limits on that practice.

In his maiden speech in Parliament in 2014, Narendra Modi said he believed in “cooperative federalism”, and he did not believe in “a big brotherly attitude to the states”. But amending the Constitution by a Presidential Ordinance to render Article 370 ineffective, and demoting Jammu and Kashmir as well as Ladakh to the status of Union Territories, are the latest in a series of measures taken by the PM which indicate a trend towards less federalism and a stronger central government.

The PM has vigorously promoted his own development programmes. These programmes weaken the state government’s ability to decide their own priorities. Importantly, from a political point of view, voters give credit for the policies to the PM rather than the chief minister.

Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar, who heads a coalition government with the Bharatiya Janata Party, was among the several chief ministers attending a meeting with the Niti Aayog who complained that central government schemes were bleeding states dry, because of the financial contribution they had to make to them.

The Goods and Services Tax (GST) weakens state governments’ ability to control their budgets by taking away from them significant revenue-raising powers. The council, which monitors the tax, is so constituted that it would require a remarkable demonstration of unity among states to veto any suggestion made by the Centre.

The PM is also pressing ahead with his “One Nation, One Election” campaign. It seems to me this is a misleading title. What we have here is not one election, but the suggestion that assembly elections should be synchronised to take place at the same time as the general election.

There would not be one election, but simultaneous elections. The PM seems to expect that the trend in the central election will be reflected in state elections. There are other complexities as well. If a state government collapses, and a new government can’t be formed, won’t the central government anyhow have to take control until the next general election?

BR Ambedkar, chairman of the committee which drafted the Constitution, regarded it as inevitable that the Centre’s power would grow.

In his closing speech in the Constituent Assembly, he said: “Conditions in the modern world are such that centralisation of powers is inevitable. The same conditions are sure to operate on the Government of India.” But he also went on to say: “We must resist this tendency to make it (the Government of India) stronger. It cannot chew more than it can digest”. Ambedkar was a very wise man.

                (HT Media)

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