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Facets of Centre-State tussles

Facets of Centre-State tussles
The death of Jayalalithaa has left Tamil Nadu politics needing political and ideological realignments. Some of these can have long term implications, not only for Tamil Nadu but also for the Indian Union. BJP is playing dealmaker between the AIADMK factions. Megastar Rajnikanth's name did the rounds about him joining the BJP – a rumour that was squashed by the star himself. At the same time, the closeness of the BJP and AIADMK has thrown the Dravidian political space to the DMK like never before which, under the leadership of M.K.Stalin, has been upping the ante on Centre's renewed Hindi imposition policies. Next week, large sections of the non-BJP opposition, espeically the various state-based political forces as well as the Congress and Left will converge in Chennai on the occasion of the elder Tamil statesman and DMK supremo, the Kalaignar M Karunanidhi's 94th birthday. The political significance of this congregation cannot be under-estimated. While this happens, the government of Tamil Nadu has come under serious criticism for bowing to the Centre, something that has been a point of utter shame in Tamil Nadu politics for decades.
Since the transfer of power from British hands to select native hands in 1947, the Union government has systematically sought to destroy the autonomous powers and rights of States. Delhi has been largely successful in this in most places but it has always faced stiff opposition in Tamil Nadu. This is not a walk over state. Tamils are not a walk over people. Delhi's infringement on any rights of the Goverment of Tamil Nadu and hence of the Tamil Nadu people have typically met with stiff resistance, in political circles and among the public at large. Ever since the Congress was booted out of power in Tamil Nadu in 1967, no Delhi-headquartered party has ever been able to wield any kind of central position in the Tamil political narrative. That continues to be true to this day. In terms of raising the first alarm on most issues of Delhi steamrolling state rights, Tamil Nadu has been the leader for decades and it marks the sophisticated understanding of the nature of the Indian Union and the relationship of its constituent ethno-linguistic nationalities to the Union. It has often marked the red line that Delhi dare not cross. It is this context one has to keep in mind when one looks at the furore that has erupted in Tamil Nadu about Union Cabinet Minister Venkaiah Naidu's recent interference in Tamil Nadu state government's internal affairs.
Venkaiah Naidu made a statement while talking about ongoing projects in Tamil Nadu where the Union government has some money stake. He said, "Our co-operation depends on your operations. Otherwise, there will be separation". This is an extraordinary statement that goes against all rules and decorum of federal structure and is a slap in the face of the much-touted PR line of "cooperative federalism". It means that the Union government is threatening to refuse to cooperate with a State government. Of course, cooperation here means money. Central funds are not generated by Delhi. It is revenue it grabs from states. The states have a right to these funds. This is especially derogatory to Tamils as Tamil Nadu contributes a huge amount of revenue to the Centre and gets little in return – no state is fiscally victimised by Delhi to the extent Tamil Nadu is. It is no secret that non-Hindi states produce revenues. Delhi hands these revenues largely to Hindi states by using bureaucratic smokes and mirrors like the Finance Commission. So when Venkaiah Naidu said that to Tamil Nadu, it naturally struck a very raw nerve.

Naidu overstepped the line when he was found in the Tamil Nadu State Secretariat reviewing scheme progress. And the sign of compromised nature of AIADMK was that Chief Minister Palanisamy was found alongside Naidu during the review! The respected veteran bureaucrat M.G. Devasahayam said, "There was no need for a Union Minister to jointly review government projects with the Chief Minister. The Chief Minister's post is high in stature in the States and at the most, such review can happen in a common place and not in the Secretariat. This is only [an instance of] a Union Minister trying to dominate a Chief Minister, against the federal structure of our country." Naidu claims that this was only a "departmental review" but never clarified why Karnataka or West Bengal or Kerala or Odisha never call him on such departmental reviews. Naidu is the Union Cabinet Minister for Housing and Urban Development. These two subjects are in the concurrent list and the role of the Union government is of a financer. Delhi is not some owner whose contractor is Tamil Nadu such that it can go in and question Tamil Nadu on project progress. Just like Tamil Nadu or West Bengal ministers cannot go to Delhi and sit with Union Cabinet Ministers in their departmental meeting and demand an explanation why funds were not released. Delhi routinely witholds funds without any explanation. It is sad but not illegal. The Union government and the State government do not share some parent-child or boss-underling relationship. They are equal stakeholders in a system where each stakeholder has a different function – that is the basis of Union, Concurrent, and State lists. Within the Union affairs list, the Union government is autonomous. Within the State list affairs, the State government is autonomous. Neither is accountable to each other. Peace is maintained by one not stepping into other's domain. Venkaiah Naidu by his action and pronoucements in Tamil Nadu last week did just that. The fact that now Tamil Nadu government has given up so much space voluntarily shows the depth of political compulsion that AIADMK faces vis-a-vis the BJP. Given that BJP is only a marginal political force in Tamil Nadu, this disproportionate influence of BJP in government matters is a subversion of democracy. However much each faction of the AIADMK tries to claim Jayalalithaa's legacy, in practical terms, both O.Panneerselvam and E.Palanisamy have capitulated and bowed in front of Delhi on issues that J.Jayalalithaa as Chief Minister took an uncompromosing pro-Tamil Nadu rights stand. These include giving up opposition to GST, not challenging NEET, signing up for UDAY scheme and most importantly, not protesting the allocation formula changes of the 14th Finance Commission that hugely transfers money from Tamil Nadu to high population growth states of the Hindi belt. It is indeed that when rights a state is bartered in exchange for holding on to political power. BJP has never had it so good in Tamil Nadu.

One can witness the rise of other non-Hindi states who are asserting their constitutionally guaranteed state rights like never before. West Bengal is fast taking pole position. Both West Bengal and Kerala have now made respectively Bangla and Malayalam compulsory in all schools of all boards. IAS and IPA officers of West Bengal cadre have now been instructed not to share any information with the Union government without prior permission on the State government. If that sounds odd, try the opposite test. Does any Union government bureaucrat in an official capacity share any Union government information with a State government without permission from the Union government? The answer is no. West Bengal has simply asserted a right that it had and one that the Union government always enjoyed. West Bengal has severely curtailed central deputations of its bureaucrats. The official reason is that there are a lot of vacancies in West Bengal and not enough IAS officers. The real reason as discussed in political circles is that West Bengal wants to prevent an unholy nexus developing between West Bengal cadre IAS officers on Central deputation and the Union government on sensitive matters of the State government that can be used to destabilise the state. Mamata Banerjee has also made it clear to West Bengal civil service officers that they work for West Bengal government and that Delhi cannot independently order them around. She said at the annual general meeting of West Bengal Civil Service (Executive) Officers Association, said that "Instructions are coming from Delhi these days. Remember that you work for the state (government). You inform us but do not implement things on your own." States do not have any similar advantage of sending state civil servants on Central deputation on a large scale to get information about inner workings of Delhi. Any imbalance of power in a federal system is a recipe for disaster. In fact, regarding a situation very similar to Venkaiah Naidu's "review" of projects where there was a Central funds component, West Bengal showed the door to 2 Niti Ayog officials that Delhi had sent to oversee "funds flow monitoring". Mamata Banerjee responded strongly to this unilateral interference stating that "in the name of State Treasury Integration they (Centre) are trying to control the financial system of the state. This is undemocratic. They are an elected government, so are we. They don't have any right to interfere in our affairs. Previously they sent two officers for this purpose but we didn't allow them and now they are forcing it upon us."

While Centre-State tussles are part of any federal system. We are increasingly witnessing deep structural invasions by Delhi into State government affairs. There are protests in many states with some being especially vocal like West Bengal and some erstwhile vocal ones like Tamil Nadu becoming silent due to the compromised political position of the ruling party. These are crucial times for the long term future of the Indian Union. Federal structure is part of the basic structure of the Indian Union. An assault on the federal structure by incursion on state rights and interference in state government affairs in an assault on the unity of the Indian Union itself.

(Views expressed are strictly personal.)

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