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Federalism sole safeguard against power overreach

It is time for the ruling class to learn that obdurate problems have to be solved through accommodation.

Federalism sole safeguard against power overreach

Vision: The makers of the Constitution designed a quasi-federal system for India. Reuters



Neera Chandhoke

Political Scientist

MARTIN Luther King Jr, a great defender of civil liberties, wrote, “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor political, nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.” We hardly expect political parties to follow this sage advice. The one passion that catapults them into the realm of power and privilege is the craving for power at any cost. There is little that is moral about politics in India today. However, we do expect parties to possess the gift of foresight. They should be able to anticipate that policy decisions will have far-reaching consequences, not only for a hapless people caught in a vice-like grip of power, but also for themselves.

Some observers of Indian politics had predicted that the decision taken by the Central government on August 5, 2019, to downgrade the status of a constituent member of the Union of States, Jammu and Kashmir, to that of two union territories set a bad precedent. We are not speaking of political morality here, simply because expectations that our ruling class will follow the route of ethics have been betrayed time and again. We are speaking of bad politics. Only a short-sighted ruling class assumes that a troublesome political issue that has plagued Indian politics for decades can be treated as a law and order problem.

But Opposition parties that sided with the government — the Aam Aadmi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Telugu Desam Party — and those that walked out of Parliament should have foreseen that the act had dangerous implications. In 2019, it was J&K, tomorrow it might be their turn. Witness the ugly spats between Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor, out to undercut the power of AAP ministers, and the enactment of an ordinance that gives to the Lt Governor charge of the administrative services. The AAP should have known that the centralising juggernaut of the government will not stop with J&K. Still, it sided with the decision. Consider the outcome of the failure to take a stand. Elected leaders of non-BJP ruled states are allegedly harassed by Central agencies; some have been arrested on flimsy grounds, and funds are sometimes denied to states. More downgrading of states that are considered bothersome might well be on the agenda.

That the Central government was granted sweeping powers became clear when the design of federalism unfolded in the Constituent Assembly. On August 20, 1947, Gopalaswami Ayyangar, a member of the drafting committee of the Constitution, reported the conclusions of the Union Powers Committee: that the Centre should be made as strong as possible. This was oddly seen as consistent with the allotment of a range of subjects to the provinces. If any subject could not be accommodated in the three lists — federal, provincial and concurrent — it would devolve to the Centre. The Constitution makers designed a quasi-federal system for India. As disorder unleashed by the Partition bred fears of further Balkanisation during the language wars of the 1950s, the centralisation of power in the hands of the Union government intensified.

The Central government has altered the boundaries of constituent states, created new states out of existing ones with the consent of state legislatures, controlled economic resources, dismissed elected governments by the indiscriminate use of Article 356, and imposed Governor’s rule in states ruled by Opposition parties. The Central and state governments coexisted relatively peacefully till 1967, when the hegemony of the Congress system was broken by the election of Opposition parties to state legislatures. The split in the Congress party in 1969, and the intended marginalisation of regional leaders, marked the beginning of confrontation between the ruling party at the Centre and Opposition parties wherever they ruled. In the 1970s and 1980s, excessive concentration of power led to identity wars in Assam, Kashmir valley, Mizoram and Punjab.

Overbearing power exercised by the Union government was consolidated and built upon when the BJP came to power in 2014. The erosion of regional autonomy is part of the ideological agenda of ‘one country, one government, one language, and one religion’. Though regional parties in the South have resisted the onslaught of Hindutva, the relentless drive to push the agenda south of the Vindhyas, and to control the government ruled by AAP in Delhi, has led to fraying of political tempers, unconstitutional attempts by Governors to interfere with the policies of an elected government, the masterminding of defections in non-BJP-ruled states and coercion of political leaders. This characterises the current sorry state of federalism in India.

Federalism is under siege. This portends further erosion of democracy in the country. In the US, Canada and Belgium, federalism was intended to enhance administrative competence through the decentralisation of power in the first case, and accommodation of diverse linguistic/ethnic groups in the other two cases. For large and complex societies like India’s, federalism is the only guarantee against further accumulation of power and imposition of a unifying agenda by the Centre. That this agenda will once again lead to intensified discontent and identity wars can be foretold. It is time for the ruling class to learn that obdurate problems have to be solved through accommodation, persuasion, inventiveness and decentralisation of power. This is called foresight.


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