Agitational politics comes easily to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. After a strong victory over the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in the 2016 state elections, the West Bengal chief minister has now directed her energies at Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Unlike most competitive politics in India, though, this attack brings up some long-term implications. At a press conference on Saturday, Banerjee has raised some key questions about how federalism functions in India, the answers to which will decide the future of India’s millions.
Banerjee claimed that Narendra Modi’s government was trying to control how the states spend their monies, referring to an online tool being pushed by the Union government that will allow it to track how states are spending their money right till the gram panchayat level.
“India’s federal structure is being bulldozed by the unilateral, arbitrary action of the Centre,” said Banerjee before going on to propose a radical rearrangement of the Union-state relationship. “I believe apart from Finance, Rail, Defence and External Affairs, the Centre should not have any other subject in its jurisdiction”.
Banerjee is right here. Although India sets itself out to be a “union of states”, in actuality, the constitution offers very few powers to those states. India’s legislative powers, to begin with, are divided up according to a scheme thought up by its former colonial masters. Not only is the Union list the longest with 100 items (which Banerjee wants to bring down to four), uniquely among federations there is a "concurrent list" (52 items) where, in case of a conflict between New Delhi and a state, New Delhi will prevail. The state list only has 61 items. As if that wasn’t bad enough, residuary powers – basically anything outside these lists – lie with the Union. In the United State, a country one-fourth the size of India in terms of population, it lies with the states.
Also, uniquely among federations, India has a provision that allows the federal government to dismiss a state government (President’s Rule). Like the concurrent list, this was also thought up by the British Raj and retained by India’s Congress-dominated constituent assembly.
It is easy to see why the Congress, in 1947, retained these highly unfederal aspects of the colonial state. India, in 1947, was almost completely dominated by one party. There was very little local opposition which could have stood up to giants such as Jawaharlal Nehru or Vallabhbhai Patel. Moreover, it was the age of centralised planning. Intellectuals were in agreement that a strong centralised state was necessary for poor postcolonial nations to bootstrap themselves out of poverty. A strong Union government, like five-year plans, was a key part of the Nehruvian consensus.
States hit back
But a strong central government is a historical oddity in the subcontinent. Local forces, broke their dormancy and got stronger. Landed castes consolidated power in state capitals and pushed back against Delhi. A decade after Independence, linguistic states were formed – much against the wishes of Nehru – strongly fusing identity and political power.
Nehru’s successor, his daughter Indira Gandhi, resisted these centrifugal forces with an iron hand. While her father had also dismissed non-Congress state governments in order to help the Congress party in states like Kerala, Indira did so on a mass scale. Additionally, Congress chief ministers were chosen as Indira puppets and were discouraged from having state bases. Mrs Gandhi’s glue might have been strong but it was also brittle. Within seven years of her death, the Congress party had stopped commanding a majority in the Lok Sabha. Today, without state-level leaders, the Congress party has an embarrassing 44 Lok Sabha seats – just seven more than the AIADMK, a party based only in one state, Tamil Nadu.
On the other hand, the current prime minister – Narendra Modi – is a man who came up via a state. Moving up from state to the federal level is common globally. In the United States, a vast majority of presidents were once either governors or senators, signifying their deep roots in their own state. Unfortunately, due to the Congress’ role, this system took a long time to materialise in India.
Outdated constitutional arrangement
Of course, even as power shifts slowly to India’s state capitals, the iron constitutional frame itself remains unchanged. Released in 2015, the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission means that 42% of the taxes the Union collects will now go to the state, up from 32% – a much-celebrated move. And while this is a step in the right direction, how small a step it is can be gauged from the fact that even after this move, the state’s share of unconditional transfers – as this article in Mint shows – is actually less than it was a decade back. Unconditional transfers are monies which the state can spend as it likes. For the rest, states have to spend as per Delhi’s directions – as in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which guarantees rural households 100 days of work a year.
NREGA – while a fine scheme on paper – is hampered by its centralised planning. States across India complain of botched management by babus in Delhi who have little understanding of the ground situation across places as varied as Manipur and Tamil Nadu.
Of course, this is exactly why federalism exists. To let local governments do what they’re good at: solve local problems. This is why every governance innovation in India – from the mid-day meal to NREGA itself – has been thought of in the states. For this to go further, though, states will need greater power and greater finances to pull their people up. Banerjee’s recommendations of cutting down the Union list from 100 to four – Finance, Rail, Defence and External Affairs – might seem drastic but that is a conversation India must have in 2016. Using a 70-year old, quasi-colonial blueprint for power sharing that does not match ground realities is a recipe for poverty and conflict.