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Metamorphosis of Indian federalism

The man credited with the framing of our Constitution, B R Ambedkar, while defining the nature of the Indian state, had mentioned, ‘The political system adopted in the Constitution could be both unitary as well as federal according to the requirement of time and circumstances.’ Ambedkar, who became independent India’s first law minister, went onto explain that there exists the harmony of federalism and the unitarism in our Constitution.

Ambedkar’s conclusion of harmony between federalism and unitarism needs a serious revisit, as we are gripped on a daily basis with the challenges of sub-nationalism and political ambitions of leadership which is tearing into the unitary spirit of the Constitution. That our constitution is unitary in spirit was concluded long back by one of the most known scholars on federalism – Sir Kenneth Wheare, who wrote, ‘a system of government which is quasi-federal, a unitary state with the subsidiary unitary features.’

Since 1950 it has been a long journey for the Indian Constitution and there have been many milestone legislations and landmark judgements which may have redefined Indian federalism. However, my concern is regarding the fresh challenges and issues which have come to dominate our polity. Issues like setting up National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), Tamil Nadu-based parties’ stand on Indo-Sri Lanka relations, conflict between Centre and the Mamata Banerjee-led government in West Bengal on Teesta river water, the stand-off between the Centre and political parties in Jammu and Kashmir on the hanging of Afzal Guru, the de-linking of state Lokayuktas from the Lokpal Bill, the Ram Sethu project in Tamil Nadu and the perennial demand for ever increasing autonomy in the northeastern states.

These issues have shown that the  harmony of federalism and the unitarism in our Constitution, about which Ambedkar talked, was systematically getting eroded. There is a point of view that its not erosion of harmony but increasing empowerment of the federal attributes of the Constitution. For example, the party in power at the Centre no more can wish away the state governments ruled by parties opposed to it.

Imposition of central rule in the states have become nearly impossible unless there is complete breakdown of constitutional machinery. Howsoever, Karnataka governor H K Bhardwaj would have wished, he actually never managed to have his way with the Centre for the imposition of President’s rule in the state. We have come a long way from the authoritarian methods adopted by the likes of both Indira Gandhi and Chowdhary Charan Singh, the Home Minister in Janata government, in muzzling democratic systems and institutions.

These developments are also linked to emergence of coalition governments at the Centre. The era of coalitions at the Centre began in 1989 with the National Front government under Vishwanath Pratap Singh coming to power. It did not survive for full-term and so was the fate of other coalition governments till 1999, when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee took charge for the third time in three years. Since then we have witnessed stable coalition governments at the centre with both the Congress and the principal opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), parties which essentially do not believe in coalition politics, have come to accept the legitimacy of coalition governments. A close analysis would show that coalitions have been greatly influenced by regional aspirations, sometimes also called sub-nationalism, which has posed the real challenge to, to once again refer to Ambedkar, the harmony between federalism and unitarism. The need for constantly recruiting new coalition partners and retain the existing partners within the umbrella of their leadership has repeatedly forced national parties like the BJP and the Congress to pander to even the unjustified demands of the regional political satraps. No wonder that finance minister P Chidambaram chose the presentation of the annual financial statement last week to send a invite to Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar to join the UPA-2014 general election.

Posed with the possibility of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi emerging as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, there would be realignment of political forces where regional aspirations would play a major role in deciding the central coalition. Kumar had given broad hints some months back saying that he was open to support any such government at the Centre which considered giving special status to the state of Bihar.

What is of greater concern is the inability of the national parties – be it the Congress or the BJP – to stand-up for the national cause. Having piloted anti-terror acts like the TADA, the Congress on return to power scrapped a less stringent POTA, which was brought by the NDA government. Now the BJP, led by their mascot of anti-terrorism Narendra Modi, has been instrumental in blocking the setting-up of the NCTC in the states.

BJP’s reservations emanates to some degree from the insecurity which Modi faces having been persecuted by the central agencies for more than a decade in post-Godhra riot cases. There is further reason for endorsing the stand on the account of the possibility of a ‘non-aligned’ Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Naveen Patnaik in Odisha and J Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu joining ranks with the NDA when it would come to government formation post-2014 elections.

Congress too on several instances refused to support the NDA government unable to overcome the political coalition considerations. With political bargain proving to be cornerstone of coalition formation, federalism needs to have a new definition. Let’s look forward to it.

Sidharth Mishra is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and is consulting editor, Millennium Post

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