Is India witnessing an unfederal moment?

“A single constitution for a country of many and varied sub-nationalities,” said veteran Indian bureaucrat Nirmal Kumar Mukarji, was “a centralizing anachronism.” The tissues and textures of India’s quasi- federalism favour centralization. That explains why the Indian state has acquired a Leviathan character. What followed the Partition of India in 1947 was an inter-religious orgy of an unprecedented scale. What loomed large was not federation but national unity. And yet, the constitution makers didn’t abandon the federal idea. Federalism gradually took root because of India’s peculiar system what political theorist Ajay Gudavarthy calls “centrist polity and decentred politics.” Today, federalism has come under a cloud as efforts are being made to reduce India to what an analyst calls “a monochromatic wasteland.”

 Modern federal idea is first and foremost a democratic idea. A healthy democracy is a sine qua non for a healthy federalism. India began as a ‘Union of States’ and moved towards greater degree of federalism when the country accommodated diverse identities and interests and created instruments for decentralised governance. Under the Modi government federalism finds itself in an unchartered territory. India is witnessing an unfederal moment which is, by no means, confined to India alone.

No federalism is imperishable. It is not enough to merely adopt a federal polity or  federal institutions. Institutions don’t defend themselves. India’s federal institutions suddenly appear wobbly. What India is witnessing is both institutional paralysis and institutional silence. What is missing is institutional plumbing.

Look at what happened to the USSR. The Soviet Union was a one-party state. All control of political and economic life was centred in the Communist Party’s hands. It was the ultimate source of power, the brains of the government and the unifying bond in a land of endless diversity.

Surprisingly, the constitution gave the Soviet republics the right to secede from the Union. Ukraine and Bylorussia even got membership of the UN. But in practice, USSR remained a pseudo federation. So was Yugoslavia. The Ethiopian constitution proclaims the “unrestricted” right of “Nations, Nationalities and Peoples” to “self-determination up to secession.” Today, Ethiopia’s ethnic  federalism is in ruins.

As a Forum of Federations document says, a country becomes a federation only when it has “a federal spirit, two opposed aspirations—an aspiration towards diversity and an aspiration towards unity.” Only when there is “a mutual permeation of the two aspirations that a federal order has a future.”

India’s democratic backslide parallels erosion of federal practices. Though the Modi government is never tired of mouthing cooperative federalism, its commitment to federalism could be compared to the “peacock dance”–three steps forward, one step backwards and spreading of  colourful feathers.

Federalism is a functional arrangement rather than a mere division of powers between the Centre and the States. Cooperative federalism implies that the Centre and the States share a horizontal relationship, not the one in which one is over and above the other. Under Modi, federalism has become a mode of authorization, not a mode of governance. If federalism has given the US kings without monarchy, Indian federalism has produced monarchy without kings. Federalism has become a political orphan.

Federalism is not a layer cake, with each layer of government neatly on top of the other. It is like a marble cake. Despite the division of functions, there is intermingling of activities.

As far as federalism goes, India was never a fabled golden age thanks to the peculiar features of its federal polity. And yet, broad principles of federal governance remained largely intact all these years. But today, what we are left with is ramshackle federalism, dis-embedded from federal institutions.

What went wrong? Abraham Lincoln said in 1838 that “if destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.” Dr B R Ambedkar, one of the architects of the Indian Constitution, too sounded a similar warning, “if things go wrong under the new constitution, the reason will not be that we had a bad constitution. What we would love to say is that Man was vile.”

Federalism is a daily plebiscite. Demand for more power, more autonomy and  States’say in the affairs of the country represents a daily interrogation of that existence. The federal system has to go through frequent negotiations between the state and seekers of autonomy, between the federal and the state governments and  it should be prepared for repeated failures of talks and accords. It is through constant churning that the federal system matures.  

Federalism needs honest conversation and good-faith disagreements. If one analyses the political discourse, it would appear as though, ‘snake-oil salesmen’ have taken over politics. Policy makes politics. Today it is the other way round. Politics is dangerously fractious, broken and dysfunctional. India is now an anocracy. Debate is now a game that can never be won. Political leaders often act like rhetorical gladiators. The troll factories are busy trotting out misleading claims and narratives, often recycling and amplifying falsehoods.

Federalism’s success requires key stakeholders and those in key institutions to act like an umpire who must stand outside and somewhat above the political fray. J S Mill recommended relentless criticism of ideas including those held by the majority.

The majoritarian democracy’s assertion of “power over” than “power with” is antithetical to federalism. Both the central and state governments see one another as the untrustworthy other. Centre-state ties have reached an inflection point.

 India is experiencing concerted efforts to destroy the federal structure. While the status of the State of Jammu and Kashmir has been lowered by the Modi government, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal is now a glorified mayor. 

See the irony: Kejriwal’s party wins more than 90 % seats in elections but after a statutory change by the Central dispensation, the “government” in Delhi means the unelected Lieutenant Governor nominated by the centre. The message for Kejriwal is loud and clear: “congratulations on graduating. Now give up on your dreams.”

Parliament has been made a rubber stamp. On 13 March, 2018, the Lok Sabha (lower house) passed funding demands from 99 ministries and government departments in 30 minutes without any debate. The government extended the jurisdiction of the Border Security Force without consulting the states.

Prime Minister Modi brags about increasing the grants from central tax collections to states but what his government has given to states by way of the 14th Finance Commission recommendations, it has taken away through Gods and Services Tax Council where it has an overriding authority over state governments.

Federalism works through persuasion and through a network of gatekeepers and oversight institutions. However, independent institutions, supervisory bodies and statutory commissions have been defanged to favour the party at the centre. The chain of command is tilted in Centre’s favour. The separation of power is fast becoming separation of parties. Bureaucrats and law enforcement agencies openly identify themselves with the governing party.

 When the States ask for funds, the Modi government acts like god. The Centre’s approach towards a petitioning state can be summed up thus: “look, out of all my projects, I really had hopes from you. It will be very hard for you to explain how you ruined one of my best works. I am sorry son, I have to tell you, the financial heavens have also denied your petition for help.”

President Trump left the States to fend for themselves in their fight against the Coronavirus. In a conference call with the nation’s governors about the coronavirus pandemic, the president declared, “Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment—try getting it yourselves.” It was a Darwinian approach to federalism: states’ rights taken to a deadly extreme.

 The same happened in India. Public health is a state subject and therefore all matters concerning the prevention, containment and treatment of an epidemic disease should have been dealt with by the states. There was no consultation with state governments who were to implement the lockdown. Overnight, millions of urban migrant labour were left to their fate.

And yet, the Prime Minister, while addressing the World Economic Forum, claimed to save humanity from a big disaster by containing Coronavirus effectively. India’s Covid mortality was 6 to 8 times higher than official counts. A study has estimated that between 3.2 to 3.7 million people had died by November 2021. The official count was over 509, 000 only.

The opposition-led state chief ministers have attacked Modi government’s “constitutional rampage” and “usurping of states’ powers.” India doesn’t need a champagne-and-pizza brand of federalism. It needs what A O Hueglin describes as “institutionalized power sharing.”

All said, under Indira Gandhi rule, India witnessed unprecedented attacks on democracy and federalism. When she was defeated and the Emergency was lifted, people sighed “never again.” The downhill journey of federalism and democracy in India is worrying. One only hopes that “never again is not here again,” to borrow a phrase from author and journalist Caroline de Gruyter.

Ash Narain Roy
Ash Narain Roy
Ash Narain Roy did his Ph.D. in Latin American Studies , Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. He was a Visiting Scholar at El Colegio de Mexico, Mexico City for over four years in the 1980s. He later worked as Assistant Editor, Hindustan Times, Delhi. He is author of several books including The Third World in the Age of Globalisation which analyses Latin America's peculiar traits which distinguishes it from Asia and Africa. He is currently Director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi