My new research area continues to intrigue me. There is so much to understand and work on.
Surendra Singh and Satish Misra have this superb paper on the topic. They say we should relook at India’s Federalism:
Federalism has been part of the public discourse in India for many decades, before and after independence in 1947, but it has gained greater importance since the 1990s when the country’s national polity saw the advent of the coalition era. With the states now asserting their position in areas which were considered the prerogative of the Centre, this Paper strives to analyse some of the related issues and suggests possible paths for the future.
They say states have expressed their dissent over several issues recently:
The recent stand of West Bengal on River Teesta embarrassed the foreign policy position of Government of India with Bangladesh. The Tamil Nadu Assembly unanimously passed a resolution seeking imposition of economic sanctions on Sri Lanka.1 Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab have been asking the Centre to take them on board while discussing water issues with Pakistan. Foreign Direct Investment in retail was opposed by several states on the grounds that the move would hurt the interest of farmers and retailers in their states, forcing the Central government to postpone the move.
Similarly, the fate of the proposed National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC), the Lokpal Bill, the amendment to the Railway Police Force Act to abolish state controlled Government Railway Police (GRP) and the Border Security Force Amendment Bill extending the policing powers of the para- military forces remain uncertain with fierce opposition from regional parties and affected states with strong arguments around the interpretation of federalism in the Indian Constitution.
The authors then go on to discuss how the history of federalism in India. There were debates initially on how to build this Federal structure. However, as I pointed earlier it became an asymmetric one with centre having more powers.
Even though the framers of the Constitution were divided on the issue of federalism as indicated by the prolonged and passionate debates that took place in the Constituent Assembly, there was a general consensus towards building India as a nation and a comprehensive understanding of the nation as a whole; they did not approach the issue of constitution writing visualising India in parts. Further, historical experiences, like the rise and fall of the Mauryan, Gupta, Mughal and other empires, could also have built the argument in favour of “unitary federalism”.
Before the formation of the Constituent Assembly, the Cabinet Mission Plan had “outlined a central government with very limited powers to be confined to foreign affairs, defence and communications”3 However, the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League could not reach an agreement on the Plan. Further, the first report by the Constituent Assembly also envisioned a relatively weak Centre as advocated by the Cripps and Cabinet Mission Plans. “The passing of the India Independence Act and the eventual Partition of India led the Constituent Assembly to adopt a more unitary version of federalism”.4
Interestingly, Mahatma Gandhi was in favour of a decentralized structure and had expressed a preference for a panchayat or village-based federation.5 Dr B. R. Ambedkar and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru were in favour of a unitary state while Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and many others stood for the cause of federalism
A compromise was reached:
Ultimately a healthy compromise was arrived at, to ensure a balance of power between the Centre and States and the Constitution described India as a ‘Union of States’ implying that its unity is indestructible. It prescribed the structure of the Union government and also that of the state governments, together with one common citizenship for the whole of India6 rather than a dual citizenship.
The federal system brought the provinces together and placed them all on the same legal footing. “Use of the term ‘union’ indicated that Indian federalism did not come into existence due to some mutual agreement or compact among the constituent units. These units were also not given freedom to secede from the union. There were no provisions of safeguards for the protection of states’ rights because the states were not sovereign entities at the time of the formation of the Union”.
There is a big difference between Union of States and United States. First indicates the union has formed the states and second indicates the states have formed the union. The authors even ask in the end:
Should India remain a Union of States as at present, or should we have a United States of India?
The authors then go onto discuss how this centre-state relation has evolved since the constitution was formed. And how with this rise in regionalism and emergence of multiple political parties the idea of federalism is changing:
The deepening of democracy and assumption of power by different regional parties in various states has generated an intense debate on giving States more fiscal and other powers. The discourse on the issue also talks of devolution and decentralization of powers to local self governments and Panchayats.
The recent victory of the Samajwadi Party in the biggest state of Uttar Pradesh and the return to power of the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab only confirm the trend of the rise of the regional parties that began in 1967 when a number of non-Congress governments assumed power in different states. Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal has even demanded the setting of a new constituent assembly to rewrite the Constitution along “general federal lines.
“There is no single ideal federal form. Many variations are possible in the application to the federal idea. Examples are the variations among federations in the degree of cultural or national diversity which they attempt to reconcile, in the number and size of their constituent units, in the distribution of legislative and administrative responsibilities and financial resources among the levels of government, in their degree of centralization and degree of economic integration, in the character and composition of their central institutions, in the processes for intergovernmental relations, and in the roles of federal and constituent governments in the conduct of international relations”, says Professor Ronald L Watts.
Economists usually see this rise in regionalism as hindrance to economic reforms. However, for Federalists and political scientists this is deepening of democracy. Really interesting..
Several qs arise:
The question that needs to be asked is whether the principle of federalism in India is being used as a mere ruse to oppose the Centre because of political compulsions or is there more substance in the argument for a review of the federal structure? Has the time come to have a fresh look at the entire issue of States versus Centre? Are these demands being raised because of fracturing and fragmentation of polity or because of growing political ambitions of some regional leaders who are using the principle of federalism to assert themselves with the desire to project their leadership? Are regionalism and regional parties temporary phenomena or have they come to stay permanently? Is the national polity going to move on two parallel tracks of regionalism and nationalism which would mean different electoral verdict in states and national elections?
The ruling establishment, of whatever ideology, background or hue, would have to learn the art of steering the ship of the nation with adequate flexibility, striking constructive compromises in the spirit of give and take. It would have to learn to stoop to conquer and whichever party learns the art of managing the rising federal aspirations would in the long run emerge as a force to reckon with. It is here that the model of “cooperative federalism” that has been discussed and debated could be one of the guiding principles in the evolution of redistribution of powers and responsibilities between the Union and States.
We all should start looking at all these issues a bit more deeply and understand federalism. This is going to be the future of Indian political and economic debates..