Is India's federal spirit weakening?

 
Mamata Banerjee Mamata Banerjee is a key ally of the government

Why are leaders of opposition-ruled states making life difficult for India's federal government?

In West Bengal, the feisty Mamata Banerjee has refused to give her consent to Delhi's water sharing treaty with Bangladesh, put her foot down on allowing foreign direct investment in supermarkets, and has complained that Delhi is not helping her state, which is drowning in debt.

Ms Banerjee has also led the charge against the centre against its plans to open a specialised counter-terrorism agency. She has not only opposed the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), but managed to lobby at least half a dozen other non-Congress chief ministers against what they call an "infringement on the rights of the states". The Economist magazine calls her the "mischief minister".

The beleaguered government cannot but acquiesce to Ms Banerjee's demands as she is a key ally. Emboldened by her moves, leaders of other non-Congress ruled states are also speaking up against what is arguably one of the most enfeebled governments India has seen. Tamil Nadu's J Jayalalitha is greatly piqued that the centre is not giving her state enough money.

Deja vu

These developments have a sense of deja vu around them.

For long, states have complained of an overbearing and arrogant centre, which defeats the spirit of federalism. They have been peeved by the centralisation of powers by the federal government which, they say, undermines their autonomy. As an example, they point to the existence of the Planning Commission, which was set up to allocate resources to states. They believe that the organisation is an anachronism in a liberalised economy. An Inter-State Council, set up in 1990 to forge a more equitable partnership between the centre and states, held its last meeting in 2006.

Leaders of regional parties Regional leaders have become powerful in India

What national parties - specially the Congress - sometimes forget is that federalism has radically changed since the rise of smaller, regional parties and the decline of the Congress. Between 1967 and 1989 - except for a brief Janata Party government - Congress held power at the centre and the majority of states. That is now a distant memory: the rise of powerful regional identity-driven parties has virtually altered the nature of federalism. Displaying political nous, these parties support federal governments strategically, extracting concessions, like "lucrative" ministerships, money and projects. For many, this is a triumph of federalism.

But the states are hardly faultless themselves. They are often run by profligate populists. They use their clout with the centre to go soft on corruption cases involving their leaders. They are also found to be authoritarian, sectarian and reckless dispensers of patronage. Most of them have failed to articulate their views on the economy or foreign policy.

Political scientists like KK Kailash actually wonder whether these parties are true federalists themselves. Both Ms Banerjee and Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar state, model themselves as champions of federalism, but have had no "qualms in using central intervention powers to suit the interest of their respective parties", observes Mr Kailash. When they were allies of the BJP-led NDA government, Ms Banerjee's Trinamul Congress, AIADMK and Samata Party - all regional parties - pressured the centre to dismiss governments in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Bihar, clearly violative of the federal spirit.

There is much to blame on the Imperial Centre, as commentator Swapan Dasgupta calls it. He even believes that the time may have come to review the "sanctity" the constitution accords to this centre. While this may be true, regional parties also need to be more responsible and offer a larger vision. Clearly, there is a crying need for more give and take in the partisan and broken politics India is witnessing today. An energetic federal polity will follow.

 
Soutik Biswas Article written by Soutik Biswas Soutik Biswas Delhi correspondent

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 19.

    Regional party leaders form regional parties so they become "in charge" and get going on their own objectives for the state and the community they control. They are more secure, they will not be dislodged by disgruntled people far away in Delhi or in the local setup. In USA, a Mayor, a Governor or a President is secure in his position, no threat from party high command. His focus is objectives.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 18.

    @Sukhvinder-Punjabi:
    In a sense, India has NEVER been one "nation" - it is one "country", but composed of many "nationalities". The "Indianness" comes though only when one is outside India - when Indians (with a few exceptions) are far less parochial. What some Sikhs and Kashmiris wanted was NOT to establish democratic states. Their goals were and still are to establish theocracies.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 17.

    Sukhvinder-Punjabi (9) says Sikhs were promised freedom by Nehroo and he also says Kashmiris were also promised freedom. Nehru may have made promises, but he could only promise his efforts. In a democracy or for that matter any government a leader or a king can only promise then make his best effort to sell the idea. He can not deliver. Delivery depends on the parliament and the people.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 16.

    Even though India is the largest democracy in the world, it is not a highly mature democracy. Decentralized governments - such as US and Canada - work well with mature democracies.

    Coupling a relatively immature democracy with endemic corruption will be extremely damaging to India if the federal government weakens. India has several adversaries around her; they'll have every reason to rejoice.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 15.

    Rise of regional parties indicate efficacy of Indian democracy. But lack of vision & leadership made regional parties more focused on narrow gains, embrace equally divisive politics. Problem remained- leaders of regional parties are equally corrupt & devoid of leadership quality. No political party (regional or national) have any internal democracy to promote people with true leadership quality.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 14.

    Our national parties need to think why regional parties are gaining strength. Indian growth story was almost totally "elitist", not all inclusive. Local people were hardly involved & benefited as a community from "development"- be it in Bangalore or Mumbai. Local aspirations, culture were neglected. Everyone was bulldozed to accommodate "development" of few. Regional parties fill the gap.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 13.

    @Sukhvinder-Punjabi (9). Your perception of "basic right of self determination" does not mean that govt has the obligation to fulfill the whims of few insane and/or power hungry people or terrorists, including few Sikhs & Kashmiris. Despite of all its ill, India is far better than those "nations" (as you may call it) that were created by fulfillment of such whims of few socio-political "elites".

  • rate this
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    Comment number 12.

    I have said it many times, which of course does not make me right. But I feel India is too big; also I feel she was not properly divided when divided from Pakistan. There are too many districts with too many unique problems. What Is needed is more Federalism, but basically independence for states within Federalism where people can feel they truly have a voice.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 11.

    Center-state relationship in India is a very delicate one. The constitution of India was drafted in such a way that India is 'partly federal and partly unitary' On policy matters there is a 'central list' (exclusive domain of central govt), a 'state list' (exclusive domain of state givernments) and a concurrent list. It is a unique model and works very well as a check on each others power.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 10.

    Before 1947 Nehru and Gandhi were promising a federal system where only defence, foreign policy and currency was to be determined by the centre and just about everything else by the states themselves. Instead all we got was a replacement at the centre from 'white' rulers to 'brown' rulers. No wonder India is and will continue to be a mess. You can’t fool all the people all the time.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 9.

    Since when India was a Nation ? It never was and will never be a one Nation it called an "Un-natural Union" of different states most of them have been forced to join in.
    The future of the people's living in India is bleak unless they get their basic right of self determination like Sikhs were promised to give freedom by Nehroo which never materialised same with Kashmiris and other southern states

  • rate this
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    Comment number 8.

    The trend will increase as more general citizen start demanding their share (as they perceive it). As main-stream "national" political parties drift away from common people (in its actions, irrespective of rhetoric) our, basically, two-party system will slowly but surely lose its strength. We need TRUE leaders to lead India, not cronies or imposed "leaders" without ANY leadership quality.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 7.

    The First question(Why are leaders of opposition-ruled states making life difficult for India's federal government?) in the article seems to be little out of place as 2 of state governments which are leading the challenge to the center are by allies of the federal government ... you need to develop the right picture

  • rate this
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    Comment number 6.

    It's not the federal spirit that is weakening, but the regional parties making demands when they know that they can tip central government from majority to minority. Indeed, a 1997 article in TOI stated that the Whitehall System is NOT suitable for India (nevermind whether it is even suitable for UK).

  • rate this
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    Comment number 5.

    After independence India reorganised itself into states based on language, etc. Its constitution is not federal, and for good reason. Before independence there were only disparate regions on the subcontinent. The framers of the constitution knew that there were strong centrifugal forces. There was partition (and later Pakistan broke up). The regional leaders are blackmailing the weak centre.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 4.

    The regional parties play important role in a democracy. They also play the role of checks and balance to central government. In India one thing is certain, the regional parties understand the problems of a region better than the national parties. In this case national parties can learn a lot from them.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 3.

    India's federal structure can only benefit from the regional parties- we will never see an 'emergency" imposed again. Indeed they have weakened our country because they are liable to corruption. But our democracy is safer thanks to the regional parties.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 2.

    The nature of regional parties is such that they take extremely myopic view of National issues. Also, the profligation of these parties and alliances that central governments must form with them give them the unrestrained power that they exercise most selfishly. It is time that only those parties that have governments in at least 2 or more states are allowed to contest parliamentary elections.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 1.

    I think most regional party leaders have only two objectives ,firstly securing a decent position for themselves and families. Secondly for their state so their first objective can be completed. From my experience in india and talking to a few regional politicians they have no concern for other states or foreign policy it reminds me of most other parts of the world.

 

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