India needs a renewed debate on federalism

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Yamini Aiyar

The controversy surrounding Governor Satyapal Malik’s decision to dissolve the Jammu and Kashmir assembly — the dubious reasoning offered and the many questions this raised about New Delhi’s role (including Tuesday’s revelations that the decision was made to avoid interference from New Delhi) — raises important questions about the evolving nature of Centre-state relations and the dangers of the Modi government’s deep centrist bias. It also highlights the urgent need for a renewed political debate on federalism and the institutional framework through which Centre-state relations are negotiated.
The BJPs emergence as the dominant single party in 2014 and its subsequent consolidation of political power across India, after decades of coalition governments and regionalisation of politics, marked a turning point in India’s federal trajectory. Since the 1990s, regional political parties began to play a significant role in reshaping India’s federal character. As Yogendra Yadav argued, voters in the 1970s and 1980s voted in the assembly elections as if they were choosing their prime minister; in the 1990s, voters began to vote for the Lok Sabha as if they were choosing their chief minister. With state dynamics dominating national politics, power, too, shifted away from Delhi.
2014 marked the first reversal of this trend. In these past four years, the BJP has actively sought to use its dominance in Delhi to recentralise political discourse and reassert New Delhi’s power. Constitutional authorities, in particular the governor, charged with mediating the federal bargain, have become an important instrument through which this goal of recentralisation is being fulfilled. From Delhi to Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and now J&K, the office of the governor is being routinely used to impose New Delhi’s political will and encroach on state autonomy.
It isn’t just the BJP. The precedent was set by the Congress, which missed no opportunity to use the office of the governor for political gains. This raises a critical question about India’s federal architecture and its ability to keep New Delhi’s centralising impulses in check. Adopted in the aftermath of Partition, our federal system is designed to have a strong centre or “quasi federal” character where the Centre has wide-ranging powers including the imposition of President’s Rule (PR). While necessary in 1947, this quasi federal character has proved limited in its ability to curtail Central overreach, especially with single party dominant national governments, highlighting the urgency of reform.
The role of the governor, and the relevance of Central powers like Presidents Rule (PR), as they have evolved in contemporary politics, need interrogation and existing mechanisms for representing state interests whether through the Rajya Sabha or the strengthening of the now moribund National Development Council so that they can serve as adequate checks against New Delhi.
Under the Modi government, however, federalism has been challenged not just through the misuse of constitutional offices but also by a subtle brand of administrative governance by the Centre, which risks undermining state autonomy. As this column has repeatedly sought to highlight, aided by political alignment between the Centre and states, administration under Modi has been about bypassing state governments to establish direct lines of communication and control with state administrators. This direct engagement has enabled New Delhi, rather than state governments, to claim credit for welfare schemes and directly promote brand Modi with voters. In fact I would argue that far more than Modi’s social media and PR strategies, it is this centralised governance style that holds the key to sustaining his national appeal in a way that continues to influence (even if the effects are waning) state elections.
Add to this, institutional innovations such as the NITI Aayog and the GST council that now dominate Centre-state deliberations, and India today has a new framework for negotiating Centre-state relations. By design, these institutions are technocratic spaces charged with developing common policy frameworks, best illustrated in the “one nation, one tax slogan”. Missing are platforms for political deliberation. With these innovations, India is moving toward what political scientist Ajay Kumar Singh characterises as “national federalism” where choices are negotiated by Delhi bureaucrats rather than through political accommodation.The idea of a federal polity that is respectful of India’s myriad differences is intrinsic to the idea of India. With increased political decentralisation, India was ripe to evolve, as Siddaramaiah, the former chief minister of Karnataka, argued,from a “union of states” to a “federation of states”. Instead, these past four years have seen a worrying trend toward centralisation that strikes at the very heart of federal principles. It is now up to India’s motley crew of pragmatic Opposition parties, whose very existence is a tribute to India’s robust federalism, to challenge this centralisation and reassert the federal idea. This ought to be the glue that binds the mahagathbandhan together. Otherwise, India’s democracy is in danger.
Yamini Aiyar is president and chief executive, Centre for Policy Research.