A union of states
The ongoing tussle between the Union government and some states is weakening democracy and India’s fight against Covid-19
The voices of dissent started long ago but their crescendo increased after the BJP's drubbing in Bengal. In the last month, we have witnessed many non-BJP chief ministers accuse the Centre of overshooting its mandate and impinging on the rights of states. The ongoing tussle between the Centre and some states is dangerously close to unhinging the delicate balance of cooperative federalism that governs our country.
The writer of our Constitution, Dr B R Ambedkar, was clear — India was both unitary and federal as would be required. The Centre definitely wields more power than the states but of late, many of the states' powers too have been forcibly relinquished to the Centre. Farm laws, National Education Policy (NEP), National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) are all such instances.
Soon after the May 2 election results, the CBI suddenly descended in Kolkata to arrest a few TMC ministers allegedly involved in the Narada scam; the ones that had switched to the BJP had been spared. Matters escalated further when Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee skipped a post-Yaas cyclone meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi after handing over the report to him. Then Chief Secretary, Alapan Bandyopadhyay, faced the ire of the central government for following the CM to her next meeting rather than attending the meeting with the PM. He was ordered to summarily report to North Block or face the music. What followed was a battle of words and wits. Bandyopadhyay refused the extension proffered to him on Bengal government's request, and instead retired on May 31 and joined the state administration as an advisor to CM. The bitterness surrounding the incident was enough to get tongues wagging that the central government was being vindictive and authoritarian. Even if Bandyopadhyay's behaviour was not befitting an IAS cadre, former bureaucrats felt that a censure would have sufficed instead of the rather public spectacle. The Bengal CM has been repeatedly saying that chief ministers are feeling insulted and humiliated and are not being heard by the PM. Calls for the recall of Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankar, who has been acerbic in his attacks on the state government, have also increased.
Similar run-ins with the central government have been reported by state governments in Delhi, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was seen folding his hands and pleading with the PM to allow his doorstep ration delivery. The central government had put a spanner in the works that would benefit 72 lakh poor people in Delhi, Kejriwal said. He urged the PM to allow the scheme in "national interest" before cheekily adding that the PM was free to take the credit for the scheme. He also categorically mentioned that the central government was fighting with Mamata Banerjee, Hemant Soren, among others. By purposely sidestepping any diatribe, Kejriwal raised pertinent questions to the Centre during the oxygen crisis in the advent of the second wave. Kejriwal has been calmly and meticulously highlighting the big brother attitude of the central government through his televised utterances. Non-BJP states have complained about the lack of vaccines and oxygen supply vis-à-vis BJP states with the Delhi government even moving court.
Tamil Nadu CM MK Stalin has also made calls for federalism by rejecting NEET exams. He has also stated that he would fight for Tamil Nadu's rights. State finance minister PTR Palanivel Thiagarajan charged the Centre of being a "begrudging donor" in a GST Council meeting with Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. Hemant Soren said that PM Modi only spoke his mind but didn't listen to him. Kerala and Andhra Pradesh have also been criticising the centre's overreach on occasions. The clamour against the Centre has prompted Mamata Banerjee to ask non-BJP states to unite against the high-handedness of the Centre.
Ironically, PM Modi as Gujarat chief minister over a decade ago had accused the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government of stamping out the rights of non-Congress states. The tables have surely turned now; the cracks between the centre and the states are deeper and more visibly noticeable today. The timing couldn't have been worse. India is still fighting a deadly second wave of Covid-19 and the scrimmage between the Union government and the states doesn't augur well. There is an inherent breakdown of trust with most non-BJP states accusing the central government of being spiteful and authoritarian. This disappearance of trust leads to a lack of decorum and frequent clashes between the Union government and the states. Maintaining the relationship between the Union government and the states has always been about striking a delicate balance. If respect is not shown to states and their opinion is not actively sought while formulating policies, the sounds of discord will only increase. The Union government must urgently smoothen the ruffled feathers and gain back the trust of the states. India is a 'union of states' and now, more than ever, we need the collective strength of the nation and the states to fight the Covid menace.
The writer is an author and media entrepreneur. Views expressed are personal