Millennium Post

Federalism pushed to backseat

The federalism that exists in the Indian Union is federalism only in name. The meagre powers that constitutionally exist in the hands of the state government are continually encroached upon by New Delhi, sometimes by issuing directives, framing ‘guidelines’, attaching riders and conditions to different schemes and by transferring subjects from state list to concurrent list. Most shamelessly, this destruction of the democratic principle is done in the name of a threatened security or a fledgling economy. So predictable these two blackmailing points have become, such is the consensus among major political groups on the inevitability of surrender of state government’s powers to New Delhi that this is now the new normal. state governments defending their rights and turfs have become an anomaly; almost an act of treason, the Delhi-based medialwallahs, thinktanks, academics and corporate mandarins would have you believe.

There was a time, not so long ago, when a state figured prominently among the group of lancers who charge against the centralising tendencies of the Union government. It showed spine when it opposed the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC) proposal. It opposed the format of the NEET examination, which discriminated against those who were educated in non-Hindi mother tongues. Narendra Modi’s Gujarat staunchly stood for the federal principle when it protested the appointment of governor Kamla Beniwal’s unilateral nominee as the Lokayukta of Gujarat.

If we go back a little bit in time, we shall see that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was a prominent part of the opposition conclave of the early 1980s that made a strong case for redefining centre-state relations and distribution of power in favour of the states. But those clearly were different times with different electoral numbers. Some solidarities, understandings and sensitivities you show when you are two, tend to vapourise when you are 272+. When you are trying to sell good days, you can’t alienate those who fund you and also hate some of your stances when you were just two.
The still 272-unsure BJP in its 2014 manifesto contained a few things on centre-state relations. It said that ‘Team India’ would have the PM and the CMs as equal partner. This sounds all good in paper but not in reality, as equal partnership requires equal power. The PM can control states by using governors. The Union government also controls most of the major revenue sources. In this dance-club, the one who has the money and employs the bouncer also owns the floor and if you want to dance at the club, you do it on his terms. That is the unequal partnership sought by the servile, spineless and the desperate, not equal partnership with dignity.

Equal partnership can only happen when revenue generated from resources that exist in a state are fully controlled by the concerned state government. This issue is related to the ‘fiscal autonomy of states’ that BJP has promised. But in a system where the centre has unilaterally decided that major ports, mines and mineral development, oil fields, taxes on non-agricultural income, duties of customs (including export duties) and much more belong to New Delhi’s brief, it is revenue autonomy of the states that matters. Without that, ‘fiscal autonomy’ will be a half-hearted call of the pseudo-federalist who wants to perpetuate the alms-giving role of New Delhi and the corresponding begging-bowl role of the states.

In the same manifesto, BJP talks about decentralisation. The irony is that nowhere devolution of power to states are mentioned. It calls for bringing ‘eastern parts’ on par with ‘western parts’. While full-fledged discrimination is on in terms of cross-subsidising some parts of the Union with revenue generated from resources of other parts, this at-par talk is to be viewed with suspicion. Does the Union government plan to compensate Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal for the huge loss of industrial capital due to New Delhi’s freight equalisation policy? If yes, then ‘at par’ has substance. If not, its election-time sanctimony, pure and simple.

If morning shows the day, then the particular nature of the policy flip-flop that the new Union government has shown, should have states very worried. Once a federalism champion as a chief minister and a long-time opposer of the Goods and Services tax (GST) during the UPA regime, Narendra Modi in his prime minister avatar seems to love the GST. The GST proposal would further destroy the few methods left to the states to generate revenue independent of the centre. One simply has to observe the unity of apex corporate bodies in opposing all kinds of goods entry-taxes to the states. The revenue loss that will be incurred by the states due to GST needs to be compensated. But the Union government does not want to give this compensation mechanism any constitutional validity and would much rather resort to ad-hocism on this front.

The long-range design is clear – to homogenise the whole subcontinent for the benefit of big money and its wishes. From stupendous public investments in ‘world-class’ NCR to dedicated corridors that will rip across people, their livelihood and their cultures, the force that hates states rights, linguistic rights, human rights, environmental rights but singularly upholds the ‘right’ to choose from a larger array of consumer goods points to something called ‘aspiration’ as a liberating force. This force loves individuals and hates families, loves bands of shoppers and hates consumer right collectives, loves eco-tourism and hates environwmental clearances. In the end, this era belongs to those who can smoothen the transfer and investment of big capital – wherever, whenever – and destroy all impedance on the way.

These impedances, known in the subcontinent as jal-jangal-jameen, human rights, family ties, tribal homelands, rights of states and federalism and such things are holding back GDP numbers. Remove them and New Delhi will shoot to the stratosphere and will pull up the rest to the clouds. But those who want to stick their ground, peoples whose lives, dreams and economies are not out of this world but evolve on the land of their ancestors, speed-breakers are their only hope. Surrender by the states on the question of GST is tantamount to the betrayal of the ‘idea of India’ as a federal union of diverse people with diverse aspirations, identities and markets. Markets are for the people and not the other way round. The illusion of free movement of goods is a cover for the free and unhindered extraction of profit from places with weak manufacturing bases. In this game, forces bigger than the Congress and the BJP put together have a stake in pushing the states to the wall. ‘National interest’ always bring the ‘national’ parties together. The people and federalism be damned.
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