On the Federalism Debate

As usual, it is a contestation for power

In an excellent post, fellow INI blogger Pragmatic provides the historical perspective on the centre-state relationship in India and aptly describes it as ‘bargained federalism.’  Indeed, that description is perhaps appropriate for even mature democracies like US where constitutionally and historically states have enjoyed a much greater degree of independence. Witness the hullabaloo in US over the recently introduced federal health reforms.

Despite its historical roots, it is interesting to examine why this debate has suddenly captured the political imagination. Perhaps the most important reason is the recent tendency of the Congress party to outperform in the general elections. It is simply unprecedented for a party which has over 200 seats in the Lok Sabha to rule merely one major state on its own steam: Andhra Pradesh. The Indian voter continues to repose her faith in the Congress party at the central level but is rewarding regional satraps in state elections. And with UP and Bihar increasingly resembling Tamil Nadu where the national parties are little more than an after thought, the marginalization of the Congress party at the state level is likely to continue in the foreseeable future. If the Congress was able to provide a countervailing force in state elections , it could have hoped to keep its allies in check. Unfortunately for the party, regional leaders while still willing to forge locall alliance no longer depend on the Congress’ support for survival of their government. This has created a peculiar situation where a Mamta Bannerjee  or Akhilesh Yadav who are essential to the survival of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government can virtually function as independent contractors.  Naturally, rent extraction is now their favorite modus operandi. These leaders are also well aware of the Congress party’s unitary tendencies. If the Congress is reluctant to tolerate its own strong regional leaders, how long can it be expected to countenance the likes of Mamta Banerjee who are inclined to follow their agenda. They could have hardly forgotten the sorry spectacle of Laloo Yadav—Congress’ strongest supporter during UPA’s first term—who is now almost completely marginalized and cannot manage a cabinet position despite a slavish devotion to Mrs. Sonia Gandhi and her family.

Nevertheless, despite the apparent friction and the constant hand wringing, the debate over federalism benefits all parties. Take the proposed National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) for instance. With the states having virtually torpedoed the central government’s plans of launching the NCTC, the Singh-Chidambaram duo get a perfect opportunity to play the victim card. If the states will not allow an effective anti-terror mechanism, what can the central government do? The NCTC fiasco may have been a setback for India’s anti-terror agenda but politically it strengthens the Congress’ claim of being the only responsible party of governance. After all, in the 2009 elections, despite all the charges of weak government, it was the bully who was punished by the Indian voter while Congress rode to a decisive victory. On the other hand, for regional leaders who have always chafed against New Delhi’s domineering role,  it is an opportunity to raise their profile at the national level as well as strengthen their credentials as guardians of  state interests.

Different chief ministers may be using federalism for their own disparate ends. For Narendra Modi who still remains in the political doghouse because of the 2002 Gujarat riots, it offers an opportunity to gather some political acceptability. No wonder, he has written multiple letters to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and is attempting to strike alliances with regional satraps like Naveen Patnaik and Jayalalitha. It is to be seen how successful he is as political leaders remain wary of the Muslim backlash but at least it allows him to shift the larger political narrative. It also ties nicely with Modi’s constant invocation of Gujarat’s asmita which apparently has been tarnished by the New Delhi Establishment. On the other hand, for firebrands like Mamta Bannerjee who preside over states which are virtually bankrupt, and who urgently need resources to fund their populist giveaways, fighting the central government can potentially deflect attention away from their own misgovernance. Unsurprisingly, the Akhilesh Yadav government is now demanding a 93000 crore special package from the central government. Expect more of these outlandish demands as states’ financial condition remains poor.

Among the most interesting aspects of this entire debate is the role of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). BJP is now a collection of strong regional chieftains who owe nominal allegiance to a weak central leadership which in any case is usually too busy fighting to become the next leader of opposition. The party’s natural inclinations are towards a stronger central government especially as it relates to nationalism and its stand against terrorism. The party would be also be expected to intercede in confrontations between  states in case of terror attacks–for instance, the Karnataka police recently arrested a Bihar resident on terror charges without apparently informing the local police thereby infuriating chief minister Nitish Kumar. These conflicts are only likely to grow as states like Bihar and UP take an increasingly soft line on terrorism. What would be the party’s stand in such cases especially if its involves important allies like Nitish Kumar?

However, BJP’s hand is being forced by strong chief ministers like Narendra Modi; it is unlikely the party opposes NCTC as a matter of principle. Its future approach towards federalism is likely to be dictated by its own performance in the national elections; if it falters again in 2014, expect the pro-federalism voices within the BJP to become more strident.

Finally, as Pragmatic points out, those speaking the loudest in favor of federalism remain dictators at home who are unwilling to devolve power to local bodies preferring to concentrate it entirely in their own capitals. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future as the majority of Indian parties now are mini-replicas of the Congress arrangement where a single leader—preferably a family scion—runs the party as a private fiefdom. True federalism would require the democratization of Indian polity; on all evidences, the opposite appears to be true with virtually all regional parties now family owned enterprises. Even in case of parties like the BSP or the Trinamool Congress where the family’s role is minimal, no dissent is tolerated. Therefore, while federalism would continue to serve as a convenient figleaf for naked power play and rent extraction, little can be expected to change on the ground.

P.S. As an aside, and this is topic for another day, what would happen to strong regional parties when the elderly leaders finally kick the bucket? Both Parkash Singh Badal and Karunanidhi are pushing 90 while Mualyam Singh Yadav is said to keep indifferent health. While they have attempted to anoint successors within their lifetimes, it remains to be seen whether the likes of Sukhbir Badal and Akhilesh Yadav can command the same degree of absolute loyalty and obedience. DMK of course is another story where a family war is all but guaranteed. Will that provide an opportunity for the national parties to reclaim their turf? Or these parties would simply be replaced by other strong regional leaders and alliances?

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