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Punjab’s three turning points & federalism

Professor, Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford

Punjab’s three turning points & federalism

Development link: In relation with the Green Revolution, a celebratory tone emerges regarding Punjab''s place in Indian federalism.



Pritam Singh
Professor, Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford

November 1 marks the day when a Punjabi-speaking state, the first such state in the history of the Punjabi language, was created in 1966 even if this state had limited sovereignty in the Indian federal framework. Along with this historic day of momentous cultural significance, the two other turning points in Punjab's contemporary history are: the launch of the Green Revolution in the mid-1960s shaping Punjab's development pattern and Operation Bluestar in 1984 determining the political upheavals in the state. These three turning points are interlinked with each other through Punjab's placing in Indian federalism. The quality of academic discourse on the three turning points has been uneven. 

The creation of a Punjabi-speaking state

The dominant narrative concedes that delaying the creation of a Punjabi-speaking state for so long that it turned out to be the last state created under the accepted principle of linguistic reorganisation of states is symbolic of a weakness in the Nehruvian federal perspective. It is only after Nehru's death in 1964 that the new Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, recognised the unjustness of the demand for creation of the Punjabi-speaking state not having been accepted until then. He, therefore, created the institutional framework for the creation of the Punjabi-speaking state by appointing a committee of the parliament under Sardar Hukam Singh. When, after Shastri's death, Indira Gandhi took over, she wanted to reverse the process but could not do as the work of the committee had advanced too far. She had to grudgingly accept the demand but created various hurdles in the reorganisation of the state, including on the capital of the state. As a result of this, the birth of the Punjabi-speaking state has remained a bitter-sweet outcome from the angle of federal governance of Punjab.

Operation Bluestar 

Most discerning academic and journalistic observers do recognise the severe fault-lines in the federal governance of Punjab as far as Operation Bluestar is concerned. It is generally acknowledged that it is the lack of flexibility and accommodation in federal governance that the tragedy of Operation Bluestar happened.

Green Revolution

It is in the discourse of Punjab's economic development relating to the Green Revolution that a different and celebratory tone emerges regarding Punjab's place in Indian federalism. The usual narrative has been one of highlighting the Green Revolution development initiative launched by India's central government in Punjab and, on that basis, suggesting that Punjab had prospered in the Indian federal framework. An implicit argument in this narrative has been the celebration of the success of Indian federalism. This two-pronged celebratory narrative on Punjab's development and Indian federal success needs to be interrogated.

In the scholarly literature on Punjab's development, especially by scholars without organic links with Punjab, there has been an almost near-consensus that given the relatively higher per capita income of Punjab in comparison with most other states and, for some years, in comparison with all states in India, it was unquestionable to conclude that Punjab was one of the most developed states in post-colonial India. Many commentators go even further than this and claim that Punjab, in fact, is the most developed state of India.

Punjab and Indian federalism

On the robustness of Indian federalism, there have been some dissident voices, most notably that of the late Ashok Mitra who was the finance minister in one Left front government led by the late Jyoti Basu. Such dissident voices express concern over the growing centralisation of economic and political power, and the implications of such centralisation for self-governance of the states. However, even these dissident voices do not question the constitutional framework of Indian federalism but merely what can be called the implementation of the federal provisions. 

In criticising both these lines of scholarly argument on Punjab's development success and India's federal success, I have found it very fruitful to frame the argument around the formulation 'Punjab as rich but not developed'. Using the criterion of per capita income, Punjab could certainly be characterised as a rich state in comparison with other Indian states. However, considering the structure of Punjab's economy with an overdependence on the agricultural sector and the backwardness of its industrial sector, Punjab certainly was not a developed state. One startling result that emerged from my research was that by 1990-91, ie about 25 years of the Green Revolution strategy, Punjab had, in comparison with all the major states in India, the lowest share of the secondary (industrial) sector in its State Domestic Product. The Centre's economic and political interventions in Punjab over this period have, overall, hindered the process of industrialisation of Punjab. 

On federalism, I have examined very minutely the constitutional provisions in three areas - agriculture, industry and state finances. This examination shows that although for agriculture and industry, the Indian constitution had put them in the State List, many other provisions of the Constitution gave overriding powers to the Centre. My argument, therefore, is that it was not merely the implementation of the constitutional provisions that had led to centralisation of economic powers, it was also the structure itself of the Constitution which was behind these centralising tendencies in the sphere of agriculture and industry. 

In examining the state finances, it emerges very clearly that although the institution of the financial commission was supposed to take care of balancing the interests of the Centre and the states, the actual movement of Centre-state finances has been towards disproportionately higher powers of the Centre. These increased powers of the Centre have been facilitated by the structure of the Constitution itself. The recent developments during the present regime on issues such as GST further strengthen these centralisation tendencies.

The overall conclusion that emerges very clearly is that Punjab's uneven sectoral development was not an aberration but a logical outcome of the structure of India's constitutional structure and development path. Therefore, both Punjab's pattern of development as well as Indian federalism suffer from structural flaws. 

The subjects of the rising importance of regional parties, federal political alliances and the federal mode of economic governance again acquiring salience recently are manifestations of the contested nature of Indian federalism and its constitutional provisions. 

Today, on Punjab day, it is in the fitness of things to remind Punjab's political leadership that it is their historical duty not to fritter away their political energies on narrow-ranged political contestations within the state but to take a leading role in shaping the political discourse in India that will eventually have far-reaching implications for Punjab's cultural, political and economic future. 

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