The Big Story: Violating federalism

In 1994, the Supreme Court delivered its most important judgement explaining the spirit of Article 356 of the Constitution, which defines the Centre’s powers to dismiss a state government. Commenting on the nature of India’s federal structure, the court made this vital observation in what is now referred to as the SR Bommai case:

“The fact that under the scheme of our Constitution, greater power is conferred upon the Centre vis-a-vis the States does not mean that States are mere appendages of the Centre. Within the sphere allotted to them. States are supreme. The Centre cannot tamper with their powers.” 

The seat of power of any state government is the secretariat, from where the chief minister, her Cabinet and top officials of the administration discharge their functions. This space is assumed to have great sanctity.

Since the death of former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa in December, though, the sanctity of Tamil Nadu’s secretariat has been violated by the Centre twice. On both occasions, the chaotic political situation in Tamil Nadu, where the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has split into multiple factions, ensured that the state’s response to these transgressions was meek.

On May 14, after a new stretch of the Chennai Metro was inaugurated, Union Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu chose to review the progress of central schemes from the state’s secretariat. On the face of it, the exercise may not seem damaging. But the context narrates a crucial tale. While Jayalalithaa had, on many occasions, met Union ministers in the secretariat, none of them had ever dared to hold a review meeting in its precincts when she was alive. In fact, even when Bharatiya Janata Party leaders accused Jayalalithaa’s government of stalling the Centre’s flagship schemes during the run up to the 2016 Assembly polls, no Union ministers would even have imagined stepping into the secretariat for any other purpose but to meet her. Most telling was what happened after Naidu’s review: he spoke to the media for 45 minutes while a subservient Tamil Nadu Chief Minister E Palaniswamy watched passively.

A similar incident took place in December 2016, barely 20 days after Jayalalithaa’s death on December 5. The Income Tax department chose to raid the office of the chief secretary even without informing the chief minister’s office.

With a strong leader dead, the BJP might feel that a chance has emerged to dominate the ruling AIADMK in Tamil Nadu. But the BJP has failed to make a distinction between the ruling party and the state government. While political maneuvers to expand in a state where it is weak are legitimate, violating long-held federal conventions will only weaken an important balance the Constitution has struck between the Centre and the state. In this, the AIADMK must share the blame. By allowing the Centre to violate the boundries of the secretariat, the symbol of state governance, it has abdicated the federalist spirit that the Dravidian movement and its leaders energetically nurtured.

The Big Scroll

  • Shoaib Daniyal explains why West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s demand for more freedom to states is crucial and legitimate. 
  • Garga Chaterjee on how the Narendra Modi government has moved to a scheme of coercive federalism.  


  1. In The Hindu, Zorawar Daulet Singh writes on why India should be part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and reconcile its geopolitical strategies to larger development goals. 
  2. Chintan Chandrachud in the Indian Express states that deciding whether bilateral agreements should override a multilateral agreement like the Vienna convention would be a crucial aspect of the Kulbhushan Jadhav case at the International Court of Justice. 
  3. In the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg advices President Donald Trump’s aides to heed the voice of reason and quit before it is too late. 


Don’t miss

Rayan Naqash reports on the problems the leader-less student agitations pose in Kashmir.

“Kabuli, a former leader of the National Conference, is worried that this wave of protests has ‘gone to the extreme’ but cautions against laying the blame entirely with the students. ‘Pellets, deaths and detentions, the lingering resentment from agitations of previous years,’ he said, ‘still has an impact on their minds.’

He is also concerned that this student agitation is ‘leaderless’ and lacks the ‘intellectual and visionary approach of past movements’. Still, he noted, its momentum will only increase.

Kabuli’s concern is shared by Hilal War, who heads the separatist People’s Political Party. He described it as a ‘situation of anarchy’. ‘We had student leaders in our time,’ he said. ‘Today, everyone is a leader. And it becomes a problem when everyone is a leader.’