Democracy, Oppn and federalism – Daily Pioneer

Posted: June 30, 2021 at 2:47 pm

At no point since Independence has India experienced such healthy and vibrant sense of federalism, irrespective of what the Opposition claims

An oft-repeated criticism by the Opposition is that since the current Government came to power in 2014, there has been a dilution in federalism which, in a large country, is believed to be an important facet of democracy. The question is: Has there been such a dilution? The issue of federalism can be discussed subsequently. Elections, both at the Centre and in States, have been held regularly and on schedule. COVID or not, polls recently took place in Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, Assam and West Bengal.

If I remember correctly, there might have been Presidents Rule in one of our smaller States for a few days. Other than that, one can assert that Article 356 has not been used by the Centre; this is in contrast to even Jawaharlal Nehru who had used Article 356 to dismiss the Kerala Government when Indira Gandhi was Congress president. As Prime Minister, she made it a habit of imposing Presidents Rule, with West Bengal being a particular target under its United Front Government. Deputy Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh outdid Indira; as soon as the Janata Party Government was formed in early 1977, he dismissed all State Governments with a Congress Ministry.

The most federal step taken since Independence has been the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Simultaneous with the levying of the tax, on a retail bill of even Rs 100, the GST is shared in half by the States and Centre. This tax comprises virtually the entire indirect taxation of the country. Earlier, the former Planning Commission used to make an allocation annually, when the Chief Ministers came to meet its Deputy Chairman with a bouquet of flowers. This allocation had no accountability, nor was the amount of grant determined by any just and equitable measure.

Take the case of Article 370. Does its abolition not place all States or Union Territories on an even keel? The birth of this Article was illegitimate. Approved by the Nehru Cabinet, it slipped into the Constitution as a purely temporary measure. Parliament never saw the light of this Article. Years ago, an Englishman visiting India had asked me whether this was a special favour by a Kashmiri Prime Minister to the Kashmiris? What could I reply? Whatever may be the extent of federalism prescribed by the Constitution, it must be applied blindfolded. The other aspect of federalism in practice is the quality of the regional politicians. Go back to the first two decades after Independence. Assam had Gopinath Bordolai, West Bengal had BC Roy and Atulya Ghosh, Srikrishna Sinha and Anugraha Narayan Singh in Bihar, Chandrabhan Gupta in Uttar Pradesh, Ravishankar Shukla in Madhya Pradesh, C Rajagopalachari and later K Kamaraj in Tamil Nadu, S Nijalingappa in Karnataka, and so on. Compared with these tall leaders, we do not uniformly have comparables today. To a great extent, they operated by principles, whereas today, national issues, whether health, defence of the country or foreign affairs, politics is made thereof.

One latest example is the COVID-19 pandemic and the acquisition of vaccines. Some regional leaders probably thought that purchasing vaccines was a pleasure which the Prime Minister was monopolising. In response, the PM declared that any State that chooses to acquire vaccines can do so. Within two weeks, they found it to be a difficult task and declared that it was the Centres duty to arrange for the vaccines. Such senior figures as Chief Ministers ought to realise the difference between political and social issues to make a success of true federalism. And certainly not contradict themselves within a fortnight.

Many do not realise the differences between a Union of States, federalism and quasi-federalism, or a unitary State. Also not realised is that there is a difference between a number of independent States voluntarily coming together to form a federation, as was the case with the US. In India, basically, the British handed over to us a number of provinces; plus, there were princely States that were asked to merge with either India or Pakistan. There was no other option. Given the variety of our population, in BR Ambedkars view, the polity was such that India had to be more centralised than, say, the US.

It is noteworthy that the concept of federalism was born with the inauguration of the US Constitution in 1781. During the times when monarchy was the general rule, the question of federalism never arose. In Europe, except for Russia, most countries were of a medium size or smaller, hence the question of federalism never arose. And Russia was an empire autocratically ruled by the Czars. Even democracy was not by any means a rule and Great Britain stood out as a shining example of democracy. Germany took to democracy after World War I and by 1934 it was back to a dictatorship under Adolf Hitler. France began flirting with democracy after Napoleon was finally defeated and imprisoned on the island of St Helena.

(The writer is a well-known columnist and an author. The views expressed are personal.)

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Democracy, Oppn and federalism - Daily Pioneer

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