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Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

India’s growing troubles of federalism

The inability of states to sort out problems requires a different solution

In recent weeks and months, India has witnessed strong currents of federal imbalances. The Union government has come under pressure and has been prevented from taking decisions that are rightfully in its domain. It has seen demands that are very hard to meet or are simply irresponsible. State governments have tended to take adversarial steps against other states. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been prevented from going to Sri Lanka to attend a Commonwealth summit; West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has taken a step that comes close to impeding free movement of goods between different states. There are other similar examples.

One can dismiss these events as mere blips on India’s vibrant political landscape. After all, politicians have done far more inexplicable things. This is not the case here.

One way to look at these events is through what can be called India’s federal paradox: while states are losing fiscal autonomy to New Delhi they have growing political clout over the Union government. This is manifesting itself in the breakdown of constitutional rules that carved out powers between the Centre and the states.

Consider these events separately and one can see the fraying of the original constitutional order.

Take Banerjee’s seizure of potato-laden trucks en route to Odisha. The Constitution (Article 301) permits freedom of trade, commerce and intercourse throughout India. It allows for reasonable restrictions for the purpose of public interest. But Banerjee’s action was hardly that. In case she felt that prices of this staple food were spiralling due to hoarding, the Essential Services Maintenance Act could have been used.

The case of preventing the Prime Minister from attending the Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka is even more glaring. The Seventh Schedule of the Constitution clearly demarcates the powers of the Union and the state governments. Foreign policy is the prerogative of the Union government. Yet, virtually all parties in Tamil Nadu have forced their way into this domain.

The final exhibit in this list is the demand of a special financial package for his state by Bihar’s chief minister Nitish Kumar. How a state government spends its money and how it raises revenues is its own business. The Union government helps states financially—over and above the devolution of taxes—to meet their developmental objectives and also tide over temporary problems. But what Kumar has demanded is very different: he wants the Union government to undo decades of financial profligacy and economic mismanagement of Bihar. The Union government cannot be expected to sort out the problems of the states. That is something that the states have to do on their own.

The way India has evolved politically over the past six decades, this was something waiting to happen. These provisions were made at a time when it appeared India would remain under a single party rule for a long time. Even when states were ruled by parties different from those that presided at the Centre, these rules remained unshaken. There was the occasional voice against the Centre arrogating too many powers—financial and administrative—but the original division was never questioned seriously.

What has changed now? Saying that chief ministers are far more powerful and ambitious is no better than a facile answer. In recent years, all these chief ministers have come to power on the basis of very high expectations from the electorate. The divergence between what citizens want and what these leaders can deliver is very high. Solving the problems of these states requires patient hard work. But the electorate and these leaders are persons in a hurry. Either they resort to solutions that are not feasible (unrealistic financial demands from the Union government—Nitish Kumar) or take symbolic, irrational, steps (Mamata Banerjee). In their inability to sort out problems they have inherited from previous governments, they take recourse to steps that only create more problems.

This does not mean that India’s federal design or constitutional provisions are outdated. Any rule-based system is as good as its leaders want it to be. The path advocated by many of these leaders will require a wholesale reordering of the federal system for what is merely their inability to carry out basic tasks of governance. That requires a different solution and not a constitutional restructuring.

Does India need to rethink constitutional provisions on federalism? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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