Constitutionally, India is an unusually centralised federation. The Centre has vast powers not only over monies but also over administration. India’s states – most bigger than large countries – have surprisingly few powers.

The Covid-19 second wave, however, has rudely shaken up this constitutional premise. Faced with the gravest calamity in independent India’s history, the Centre has retreated almost to the point where it has gone missing. As a result, India’s states have been thrown into the deep end.

Vaccine chaos

Take, for example, the case of vaccines. The single biggest difference between the first and second wave was that there was now a vaccine. Except, the Modi government dropped the ball, ordering too few vaccines and ordering them too late. Unaware of how big an error it was making, the Modi government even went on a PR overdrive, advertising how it had supplied vaccines to other countries – even as Indians themselves had vaccination rates well below the global average.

As the second wave ravaged India and the Centre came under attack for this vaccination mess up, it did something remarkable: it gave up. On April 19, the Union government announced that it would not involve itself in vaccinating Indians below the age of 45. States would have to purchase the vaccines themselves from the international market – the only country to do this. The only part that India’s powerful Centre would play in this critical task would be printing a photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the vaccination certificate.

While some states have already floated tenders and invited bids, it is clear that the chances of them being successful are dim given they are up against older orders and sovereign states. As a result, India’s vaccination drive is slowing down even as the second wave progresses.

Gasping for government

Much the same happened with the supply of medical oxygen. As had reported, the Centre was egregiously underprepared for the second wave when it came to oxygen supply. As India suffered a crippling oxygen shortage in April – which in of itself was responsible for many deaths over and above Covid-19 – the Centre came under increasing attack, both from the media as well as the judiciary on this front.

As it defended itself, the Centre suggested that the Supreme Court set up a task force to allocate oxygen to states, which the court did. Even as the Centre failed in its job when it came to providing oxygen to the states, it still used its powers to make the situation worse, denying Punjab permission to import from Pakistan just across the border.

A similar abdication was seen in keeping a watch out for the (inevitable) second wave. Like with vaccine procurement and inter-state oxygen supply, the Centre is ideally placed to plan: which in Covid, involves watching out for pandemic cues. Once alerted to those cues, the states would implement measures on the ground. However, the Centre failed.

The Caravan reported that the country’s national scientific taskforce on Covid-19, which is supposed to advise the Union government on its response to the pandemic, did not meet even once during February and March. The Print reported that the group of ministers on health hadn’t held a single meeting between January and March. As the second wave took off, it was states that rang the alarm bells, pushing the Centre – often publicly – for everything from oxygen to drugs and vaccines.

The virulent second wave differs greatly from the first last year when the Centre took total control of the situation – even going so far as to shut states out of the lockdown decision making process. While health is a state subject in the Indian constitution, the Union could do this using an expensive reading of emergency provisions of the Disaster Management Act.

As is clear, nothing like that has happened this year and states have managed their own lockdowns completely. In fact, so acute is the Centre’s lack of action that the Economist magazine simply accused Modi of “vanishing”.

Intruding on states

Even as the Centre abdicated its duties as a planner and inter-state coordinator for pandemic management, it paradoxically went on the offensive in other areas, trying to usurp state powers. The most egregious example of this was the GST council. While it is legally mandated to meet every quarter, the Union government simply did not convene it for the last seven months.

On May 14, West Bengal chief minister wrote to the Union finance minister, urging her to convene the council in light of a massive expected shortfall in taxes. A week earlier, Punjab had written a similar letter to the Union government. “A failure to hold any constructive consultation with states for so long in such critical times makes me wonder whether the Centre has usurped all the powers of states putting the spirit of cooperative federalism,” charged Punjab finance minister Manpreet Singh Badal.

It was after this that the Union finance ministry announced a GST Council meeting for May 28 – marking what will in all probability be the start of another long Union-state struggle over pending GST dues.

An even more egregious intervention was seen in West Bengal, where the Union Home Ministry-controlled Central Bureau of Investigation has gone ahead and arrested senior ministers of the newly formed Trinamool government in a seven-year old corruption case. This comes after the Bharatiya Janata Party fought a bruising electoral battle with the Trinamool, only to crash to a big defeat.

However, in spite of its massive win, the new Trinamool government has been destabilised almost immediately after it took office with these arrests. Notably, the political intent of these arrests is clear as day given that TMC leaders who defected to the BJP and are accused in the same scam have been left untouched.

Federal faultline

The reason for this shock action is clear. While the BJP faces little opposition at the Centre, the political challenge it faces actually breaks down along a federal cleavage. Even as it is unchallenged in New Delhi, the BJP’s dominance plummets sharply in states like West Bengal. Thus even as the Centre has abandoned many of its core responsibilities, it has no qualms about preventing Opposition-ruled states from focusing on the task at hand.

This intrusion, interestingly, is not limited to Opposition-ruled states. In Varanasi, for example, the Union government is directly watching over the city’s Covid helpline call centre. Given Varanasi is the prime minister’s parliamentary constituency, the Union government feels it needs to take up local government functions. This isn’t all: on Tuesday, the prime minister directly interacted with 46 district magistrates, breaking India’s federal chain of command, given that the officers report to the state not the Union.

In sum, even as the Centre abdicates its core responsibilities of planning and inter-state coordination, leaving states to fend for themselves, it is more than happy to intrude into areas marked out for state or local government. Never perfect, the second wave has ensured that India’s federal structure has been thrown into utter chaos.