Fight This Authoritarian Centralisation
NOT a day passes without some attack on the federal structure and infringement on states’ rights taking place.
If one day, the centre unilaterally announced a vaccine policy whereby states are asked to procure vaccines and pay for them, then another day, the chief secretary of West Bengal is summoned to Delhi to report for duty on the day of his retirement. The next time, the centre is stepping in to prevent the Delhi government from implementing its door-step delivery of rations. On another occasion, the Punjab government finds that the centre has stopped the payment under the Rural Development Fund due to it amounting to hundreds of crores of rupees; it is being penalised for its opposition to the farm laws.
The prime minister held two successive meetings of district magistrates of 19 states to review the pandemic measures bypassing the state governments. Not to be left behind, the union education minister held a meeting of education secretaries of the states to discuss implementation of the new education policy without the participation of the state education ministers.
The list is endless, whether it be the violation of the constitutional scheme of centre-state relations, the usurpation of the financial resources of the states or the “political” intervention of governors and Lt. Governors in matters of state governments.
These are not isolated instances or aberrations. What is happening is a systematic assault on the federal principle of the constitution and the trampling of rights of states by an authoritarian centralism. This process was speeded up after the pandemic and the emergent provisions of the Disaster Management Act and the Epidemic Diseases Act could be invoked.
The grave assault on federalism and states’ rights began in the second term of the Modi government with the virtual abrogation of Article 370 by dismantling the state of Jammu & Kashmir. This attack has become generalised affecting all aspects of centre-state relations and federalism.
The assault is in three spheres mainly, that is the constitutional principle of federalism, the fiscal aspects of federalism and the political basis of centre-state relations.
The encroachment of the centre in areas set out by the constitution as state subjects was seen in the way the three farm laws were adopted which infringed on the state subjects of agriculture and agricultural marketing. The adoption of the National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Act in March, this year, saw the constitutional arrangement of state powers being blatantly violated with the Lt. Governor being declared the ‘government of Delhi’ and the state legislature’s powers and jurisdiction being further curbed. The use of centrally-sponsored schemes to dictate the states’ policy matters in the spheres of education, health and rural development continues at a vigorous pace.
The fiscal space for the states has shrunk further. The Goods and Services Tax (GST) arrangement has taken away whatever powers of taxation the states had possessed. On top of this, the centre has, in the past two years, refused to give the states their due compensation, which they are statutorily entitled to, on the plea that GST revenues have fallen. The last two finance commissions have worked under extraneous terms of reference introduced by the centre, which illegally attached various conditionalities to a constitutionally-ordained division of resources between the centre and the states.
The pandemic saw the financial crisis of the states reach a peak when the centre refused to relax the borrowing limits substantially and, at the same time, health, GST compensation dues and other funds owed to the states. This at a time when the states have to bear the brunt of the expenditure on health and other urgent social security measures to meet economic
dislocation caused by the pandemic.
Politically, the centre is unremittingly hostile towards the state governments run by opposition parties. Governors like Jagdeep Dhankar in West Bengal act as handymen of the ruling party at the centre. RSS men functioning as governors are illiterate about the constitutional role of governors and are more interested in pushing the Hindutva agenda.
The plight of union territories is worse. Puducherry had a Lt. Governor, Kiran Bedi, who behaved like a viceroy and was in constant conflict with the elected government. Both in the previous assembly and the new legislature, the three MLAs nominated by the Lt. Governor were BJP men – an example of how the party is built from the top.
Lakshadweep is the stark example of an authoritarian centralism gone amok. The BJP man, who is the administrator, has announced a series of regulations which, if implemented, will destroy the social and cultural fabric of Lakshadweep and subject the Muslim population there to the tyranny of majoritarian rule.
This assault on federalism and the diversity underpinning such a system is part of the overall attack on democracy and secularism and hence needs to be opposed and fought. At the forefront of this fight has to be the opposition-run state governments. Already on the disastrous vaccine policy, most of the opposition-run states spoke up and sought to coordinate their stance demanding that the centre take up the task of procurement and providing vaccine free to the states. This common stand contributed to the Modi government’s reversal of its policy. On GST compensation also, the opposition state governments have sought to coordinate their stand for some time.
But the defence of federalism and state rights requires a closer coordination amongst the opposition state governments. Even now, three of the non-BJP state governments of Odisha, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are half-hearted, or, reluctant to take a firm stand. The three regional parties running these governments should realise that extinction of federalism and undermining of states’ rights will threaten the interests of these parties in the future.
Federalism is also indivisible. Arvind Kejriwal and the AAP, who supported the abolition of Article 370 must have realised their mistake when the law was amended to reduce Delhi to a glorified municipality. Similarly, the Congress, whose state governments are at the receiving end, has to unlearn the imperious way it used to wield Article 356 to unseat elected governments and otherwise circumscribe the powers of the states.
More broadly, apart from the opposition state governments, all the opposition parties, should get together to spell out a platform in defence of federalism, defence of states’ rights and for restructuring of centre-state relations – something like the resolution of the Srinagar Conclave on centre-state relations, updated for contemporary times. The fight for the federal principle and the rights of states is an integral part of the struggle against authoritarianism and for democracy.
(June 09, 2021)