By Sagarika Ghose/The Indian Express
With an eye on impending state elections, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah recently raised the flag of a South Indian revolt.
States south of the Vindhyas have been effectively subsidizing the north, he wrote on Facebook. After Chandrababu Naidu-led Telugu Desam Party (TDP) exited the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) Working President MK Stalin declared he would support a “Dravida Nadu” of southern states.
In Bengal, Mamata Banerjee repeatedly attacks New Delhi’s imperiousness and Keralites have taken to social media to protest stereotyping the entire state as a “killing field” simply because of age-old political violence between rival party cadres.
With 20 ruling alliance Chief Ministers, clearly the opposition feels squeezed and there are moves afoot to create a loose Chief Ministers’ front. The Centre vs states battle poses a fundamental challenge for the polity: is a strong Centre run by a majority government and a dominant personality cult always in confrontation with the possibility of a looser federation of states in which no single party or individual enjoys overwhelming power?
It could be argued that coalition governments, although dubbed ‘rickety’ and ‘unstable’, capture India’s plural ethos better than a single party.
The Janata Party coalition of 1977, and those led by H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral were indeed shaky. Yet the coalition government led by AB Vajpayee and the minority government led by P.V. Narasimha Rao were highly successful.
Former Reserve Bank of India Governor Y.V. Reddy recently said that coalition governments produce better economic growth than single party ones, pointing out that India saw the highest growth from 1990-2014 during coalitions.
The Vajpayee coalition government of 1999 – the first to last a full five years – was a remarkable experiment that saw growth rates pick up, tough decisions on disinvestment taken, a new relationship with the US as well as a drive towards infrastructure.
It showed that if there is a consensus-building leader as a glue, it is possible to provide purposeful governance even if no party had an absolute majority. From George Fernandes to Chandrababu Naidu, Vajpayee was trusted.
If Vajpayee was the reconciler, P.V. Narasimha Rao was the crafty political manager who, while heading a minority government, pulled off the most dramatic transformation post-Independence India had ever seen, namely the 1991 reforms. With stealth and statecraft, Rao liberalized the economy, carrying with him a divided Congress and a hostile opposition.
Contrast this with India’s majority governments. Indira Gandhi’s thundering mandate in 1971 led within three short years to a descent into socialistic protectionism and the 1975 Emergency. Rajiv Gandhi’s huge victory in 1984 soon collapsed amid perceptions of influence-peddling coteries around an all-powerful PM.
Today, Prime Minister Modi rules with a massive majority, repeatedly proving his electability. Yet there’s a question over his highly individualistic governance style that seems to be alienating significant sections of the political class.
Every NDA ally today appears disillusioned, TDP’s angry estrangement revealing a certain flaw in a decision making structure concentrated overwhelmingly around the Prime Minister’s office in Delhi.
Modi has talked of “cooperative federalism”, yet Chief Ministers complain that the Centre sees them as rivals. For example in the Prime Minister;s latest Ayushman Bharat scheme, several state governments fear that their own health insurance schemes will be subsumed under this gargantuan central plan and the Prime Minister will get all the credit. After all, why should opposition-ruled ruled states like Bengal and Karnataka accept Delhi’s writ if they aren’t given the political space to implement their own program?
Also, when a powerful ruling party speaks of a ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’ the opposition begins to fear not just defeat but elimination. In this sense, BJP’s the “new Congress” which in the 70s similarly sought to politically crush not only its rivals but federalism itself with disastrous results in Punjab and Jammu andKashmir.
By contrast, the Goods and Services Tax (GST) negotiations showed what could be achieved if there was give and take between the Centre and States. Here the Centre reassured states of being equal stake holders, the reason why no state, despite serious misgivings, has so far walked out of the GST edifice.
Can India’s politics resemble the cooperative federalism of a GST-like council in 2019 with a balance of power between federal government and states?
United Progressive Alliance -1 (first regime of five years led by the Congress) saw a similarly consensual formula. Despite the Left’s haranguing presence, it was able to create high growth and move forward on an Indo-US nuclear deal. The perception was that the Centre was weak which led to slow decision-making, yet the non-political Manmohan Singh wasn’t seen as a political adversary by Chief Ministers.
By contrast, Modi’s dominant political personality has left him vulnerable to being seen as a threat by regional leaders, pitting BJP’s political expansionism against regional forces in States.
B.R. Ambedkar designed India’s Constitution as more federal than unitary.
“India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States,” declares Article 1. Today, more than ever before, India lives in its States and not in Delhi, it’s an era of robust and powerful Chief Ministers.
That’s why the shifting contours of politics has resulted in Mamata Banerjee and K Chandrashekhar Rao sharing their alternative “chai pe charcha” (meetings over tea); a Sharad Pawar and Chandrababu Naidu weighing their options, and a loose regional or federal front taking shape.
These are not as misconceived as they may initially appear. Of course any coalition of Chief Ministers cannot revolve simply around a ‘Modi Mukt Centre’ agenda. But it must become a template for ensuring an equitable share in resources and a greater say for States in decision making.
A federal front mirrors Indian realities in which power doesn’t flow from the top but where decision making’s genuinely federalized.
In fact, in many ways, coalition governments are perhaps the only remaining institutional check on democratic authoritarianism and over centralization.
India’s diverse polity has always needed a wide dispersal of political power to create a truly ‘United States of India’.
(The featured image at the top is that of journalist and author Sagarika Ghose)