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Towards A Balancing Act

Indian federalism is a living being that is in constant flux. The art of political management lies in ensuring balance between the interests of the Union and those of the States

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India shall be a union of states, declares the Constitution of India. The balance of power between the government of the Union and those of the States has changed from time to time. While the Constitution itself and the various creations of the Constitution such as the Supreme Court, Parliament and Legislatures, the Finance Commission (FC) and so on, have defined the balance of power between the Union and the States, so too have changing political equations and the forces of economic development. Hence, the debate about the relative power of the Central and State governments will always remain a live issue.

The recent debate on the terms of reference of the FC and on the role of centrally administered programmes is nothing new. Such debates have been the stuff of Indian politics from the very beginning of the Republic.

What has defined the recent debates is the fact that PM Modi came to power promising to strengthen what he himself defined as ‘cooperative federalism’ and has since been accused of excessive centralisation of power. That shift is, however, in the very nature of things. Politicians in power in States criticise the Centre but when they move to the Centre they tend to stay the course set by their predecessors. Civil servants take a very different view on Centre-State issues as Chief Secretaries and Finance Secretaries of States compared to the views they are wont to hold as secretaries of the Union government. The Indian political system had got used to a certain pattern of power relations set during the so-called “era of coalitions” when Prime Ministers were weak and Chief Ministers (CM) were powerful.

The main reason why Modi chose to wind up the Planning Commission may not have to do with the fact that it was created by Jawaharlal Nehru as an affront to the Indian federal system but that, as CM, he resented the manner in which a non-politician Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission lorded over the resources allocated to States.

While Modi may have been well intentioned in doing away with symbols of excessive power concentration in the Union, the fact also is that he headed the first majority government in a quarter century that came to power promising to marginalise other political parties and secure national political dominance. Such a political agenda would by definition challenge the idea of decentralised power.

In short, there is nothing personal about it. The tension between the Centre and the States, between a national political party and regional parties, between a dominant national figure who is the Prime Minister and powerful regional leaders who are CMs is built into the Indian federal system. PM Modi may genuinely be committed to the idea of “cooperative federalism”, but his power base and political agenda will necessarily drive him in the direction of a greater contestation between the Centre and the States.

This has happened before. Even when the Indian National Congress was the only major national political party, there was great tension between a powerful PM and the many powerful CMs of the time. CMs like Kasu Brahmananda Reddy, Mohanlal Sukhadia and H.N. Bahuguna challenged Indira Gandhi’s government in New Delhi on many policy issues, making common cause with non-Congress CMs like Anna Dorai and EMS Namboodiripad.

Apart from the provisions of the Constitution and the political power balance a third factor has also come into play in shaping Centre-States relations: the relative economic and financial muscle of a State government. In a divided Andhra Pradesh, an economically securer Telangana does not have the same problem with the Centre as a financially emasculated Andhra Pradesh. CMs of economically better-off States rarely have to go to Delhi as supplicants seeking funds.

Indian federalism is a living being that is in constant flux. The art of political management lies in ensuring balance between the interests of the Union and those of the States.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


Sanjaya Baru

The author is Economist & Journalist

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