A shorter version of this article appeared in Bangla earlier in Sahomon.
The question of federalism and Centre-State relations has been on many people’s minds lately, given that the Centre in the Modi dispensation has been hell bent on usurping the powers of the states while slyly thrusting all responsibility on to their shoulders. As a matter of fact, it was precisely during the outbreak of Covid19, when there should have been maximum cooperation between the Centre and the States, that the strains started showing in a glaring manner. Very early on, it became clear that the Centre was intent upon using the pandemic to usurp more and more powers, while riding roughshod not only on the rights of ordinary citizens but also of the States. In dealing with the pandemic, not only were the mandatory consultations with the States not held, they were in fact simply handed over decisions. The most dramatic of all these, of course, was the completely bizarre manner in which the Lockdown was declared last year, at just four hours notice. The huge tragedy that followed was totally avoidable had there been prior consultations and had the Prime Minister, just for one moment, behaved like one. As a matter of fact, the record of this government over the past seven years has been pretty consistent in this regard at least.
Starting with the Goods and Services Tax (GST) to the devious way in which the farm laws were brought in through promulgation of ordinances under the cover of the pandemic, every move, every step of this government so far makes it clear, that its only intention has been to use this extraordinary tragedy for concentrating more and more powers in its hands – and use them to dispense favours to its capitalist cronies. The government’s desperation to implement the farm laws is a clear instance of this – and this is done once again, usurping the powers of the States.
It is also well known that over the past year of the Lockdown, as of February 2021, the Centre had not paid the States’ GST dues amounting to Rs 2.06 lakh crores. Add to this the interest that would accrue to the States, which in all probability they will be deprived of. The Centre later released Rs 44, 000 crores – which still falls far short of the actual amount due, for the attitude is one of releasing the dues in bits, when the pressure becomes too high.
Not only has the Centre withheld the money owed to the States, what is worse is that in complete disregard to the thousands of lives that have been lost and lakhs that are at stake, it has continued its dirty politics of starving the States of even the sanctioned oxygen supply that is due to them. This has especially been the case where States are governed by parties that had defeated the BJP . Similar has been the case with the availability and pricing of vaccines – all of which are used by the rulers at the Centre to ‘punish’ states that did not vote for them. Various Chief Ministers have raised their voice against this state of affairs but to no avail.
It was in this background that the Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, had to suddenly make a segment of the PM’s meeting with the CMs live for people to see. The episode occurred at the height of the ‘oxygen politics’ being played by the Centre, in which many people lost their lives – and it was meant to show up the Centre’s claims, with Kejriwal actually asking Modi some pointed questions. Delhi, it should be remembered, has been a recipient of the special favours of the Centre for a very long time and just a couple of weeks ago, when all attention should have been focused on collectively dealing with the Covid situation, the Centre amended the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi (GNCTD) Act, making its agent, the Lieutenant-Governor the de facto government. This same mind-set was visible among BJP’s social media warriors who, on the day they lost the West Bengal elections, went into overdrive, peddling fake news intended to instigate communal violence and alleging ‘Trinamul Congress terror’ and demanding imposition of President’s Rule.
Despite all this, so far the question of federalism has not been raised either by the State governments or by political parties, in any seriousness – except in some specific economic and financial contexts. Partly, this has been because the States have had to focus their attention and energies on the Covid19 crisis, which they have to deal with on their own.
In the Post-election Situation
The question of Centre-State relations and federalism has been at play as a backdrop during the entire period of the election campaign in the four states where elections were just concluded. It has been raised in different ways and to different extents by the LDF in Kerala and the TMC in West Bengal – not to mention the DMK in Tamil Nadu, for which state autonomy has been an important part of its overall politics.
Actually, it is interesting to note, in parenthesis, that for the LDF and the CPI(M) in particular, especially in West Bengal, this had been an issue of key significance. In 1977, after the ascent of the Left Front to power in the State, with the presence of the Janata Party government at the Centre and the strong anti-authoritarian sentiment in the country at large, the moment was thought fit to push for a restructuring of the relations between the Centre and the States. It became quite urgent once Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980 and the tussle between the Centre and West Bengal assumed unprecedented proportions. Consequently, for a couple of years that slogan became one of immediate political mobilization and campaigns. This led to the coming together of a number of non-Congress governments at the all-India level, into a series of ‘conclaves’ where this demand was raised. It is also worth recalling that though the Anandpur Sahib Resolution of the Shiromani Akali Dal was adopted in 1973, it was endorsed afresh in 1978 – the very moment when the question of federalism had come to the fore in a very big way. Though the document essentially demanded a radical restructuring of Centre-State relations, leaving key areas with the Centre, it was seen by Indira Gandhi as a secessionist document.
Even though the demand was catching on and a number of regional leaders and parties were adding their voices to the demands for restructuring of Centre-State relations, the CPI(M), which had, in a sense, initiated it at that moment, developed cold feet. Outflanked by the Khalistan movement in Punjab and the Assam movement in the North-East, the CPI(M) rapidly abandoned the demand as it started moving closer and closer to the stance of the Indira Congress – dubbing all demands of autonomy as secessionist. The point that has never been squarely confronted is that it is the over-centralization of power that leads to secessionist movements. Greater autonomy for States alone can take the wind out of the sails of secessionist movements. (I am for the moment, suspending a discussion on terms like ‘secessionist’ and what they might mean as it requires a longer discussion.)
Today, with the experience of seven years of the Modi government however, we need to discuss the question on another plane altogether. It is clear that if the question of States’ autonomy and federalism is not put squarely on the agenda as a slogan for building a movement, the very character of the entity called India will change forever. We need to recognize that the immense diversity and plurality of India as it exists today was possible, and indeed flourished over centuries, primarily because there never existed a centralized political power in this land. The Hindutva project of centralization and homogenization of Indian culture as Hindu (upper caste and North-Indian) are actually two sides of the same coin. The project of the erasure of difference and diversity will proceed apace if they manage to centralize power in the hands of the Centre.
A big positive development in the run-up to the 2024 parliamentary elections relates to this issue. It has been brought forth by the results of the recently concluded State and panchayat elections in UP, which indicate a big setback for the BJP. In a sense, it is the possibilities opened up by these post-election scenarios that Nakul Singh Sawhney too pointed towards in his brief musings. With the emergence of a series of powerful Chief Minsters with a renewed and strengthened mandate, we can expect the game to shift into their hands rather than remain in the hands of decrepit party-bureaucrats with a tradition of committing one ‘historic blunder’ after another. The decimation of the West Bengal CPI(M), which might otherwise have been a stumbling block within the party, too seems to be good news at the moment. Suddenly, with CMs like Mamata Banerjee, MK Stalin, Pinarayi Vijayan and others like Arvind Kejriwal and Uddhav Thackeray, there does seem to be a whole set of new faces compared to the old ones of the Congress variety who have long ceased to instill confidence among the people.
Whatever our allergies to or reservations about any of these CMs, there is little doubt that most of them have had a record of doing some important work and initiated policies that can serve as starting points for the future. Thus for instance, though the Kejriwal government has disappointed lately in some respects, it has for six continuous years continued to allocate one-fourth of its budget to education and has turned government schools around very significantly. This had led to very good results by students from such government schools for some years now. Its attempts to provide free water and electricity too have been very important in acknowledging that these are non-commodifiable entitlements of citizens. The Pinarayi Vijayan government has earned encomiums for its handling of two devastating floods and the Nipah virus before this pandemic came along. Some of the other policy measures of the Kerala government have included streamlining of school education which too, like Delhi, has had a significant impact. Mamata Banerjee’s initiatives have included a whole range of cash transfers to young girls wanting to study rather than get married, to Dalit and minority students, pensions for elderly poor women – all of which, economists like Maitreesh Ghatak acknowledge, has had an effect in enabling economic growth in the state. Stalin of course, begins afresh but his very first decision to transfer Rs 4000 to all rice ration card holders (the first installment of 2000 is to be immediately transferred), reducing the price of milk and free bus travel for women, indicate the direction in which he is moving. All these suggest a possible different way in these dreadful times when the state’s healing touch must be top priority.
If this be a possible way of confronting 2024, then we are not looking so much at the organization of parties at the national/ all-India levels but to their regional and state level CMs who have had something to show by way of governing the state with some sensibility to the poor. And this way of looking at the picture will apply equally to the Congress as well. It is not its central organization that will count – for that is already in an irretrievable mess – but what it and its CMs have managed to do. As far as the Congress is concerned, it is a sad fact that the so-called 23 rebels who shot off a letter recently to the party president have practically no mass support and many of them are the same tired faces that we have seen over the decades. None of them have been visible on the streets. Even today, it is Priyanka and Rahul who one has seen out on the streets and who have some degree of popular support – but that in itself, is neither here nor there. Eventually, there too, what will matter is where its state governments have been able to deliver. And that essentially means that if an new front or coalition were to emerge, the Congress will be in it as one of the partners – certainly not the dominant one as in the previous formations like the UPA.
Whatever be the shape and form of electoral coalitions, however, there seems little doubt that it is the future of the very entity called India that is tied up with the struggle for states’ autonomy over the near future.