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Is India witnessing an unfederal moment?

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“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 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

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South Asia

“Haqeeqi Azaadi” or “Political Invasion”?

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You call it a “Long March” or an “Azaadi March” or a “Haqeeqi Azaadi March” and lastly according to some people “Political invasion of the capital”; whatever attempt it may be, the impact of this “Long March” will not be “Short” at all. Seems like history is repeating. Yesterday, it was PTI, later it was TLP, then JUIF, PDM & now again PTI. This reminds us about a Supreme Court’s historic judgment on Faizabad Sit in by Supreme Court, which is quite relevant again in these crucial times. The historic judgment of Supreme Court on Suo moto quotes that “The leaders of the dharna intimidated, hurled threats, abused, provoked and promoted hatred. The media provided unabated coverage. Inflammatory speeches were delivered by irresponsible politicians. Some unscrupulous talk-show hosts incited and provoked citizens.” Isn’t the situation once again similar? Doesn’t it seem like history is repeating? Few analysts consider it to be a worst kind of situation.

Supreme Court writes in its judgment that “the freedom of speech and expression and of the press are fundamental right. However, these rights cannot be used to denigrate or undermine the glory of Islam, security or defence of Pakistan, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, or commission of or incitement to an offence.  He categorically mentions that “PEMRA Ordinance mirrors the restrictions as set out in Article 19 of the Constitution and further prohibits broadcasts which are, “likely to create hatred among the people or is prejudicial to the maintenance of law and order or is likely to disturb public peace and tranquility.” So, Supreme Court has already given clear instructions that if some event is likely to disrupt peace and tranquility, media broadcasts can be prohibited.

Insiders say that we are in a dead end and this is the most crucial time of history for Pakistan, especially when the economic fate has to be decided by IMF on 25th May when Imran khan marches on Islamabad. So let’s playout the possible upcoming scenarios which political stakeholders may have to consider;

  1. Marching towards Islamabad with huge crowds is one thing but forcing a government to dissolve assemblies with this crowd is another thing. Imran Khan very well knows this is a do or die situation for his political career as well. He knows his March will only succeed if he can force an early election.
  2. Bringing larger mobs to Islamabad will only be fruitful if there is some kind of disruption by the present government or by the PTI itself. IK knows that a prolonged sit in without happenings in the red zone won’t be impactful.
  3. PTI leaders have been repeatedly convincing people including government employees, Army officers and police to bring their families in their Haqeeqi Azaadi March. The question which arises is that “Why IK doesn’t bring own family members to join the “Jihad” or “Haqeeqi Azaadi”?
  4. IMF has to take crucial decision on Pakistan’s economic fate. Without an IMF Package, a Srilanka type scenario may arise. The decision will come on the same date as of long march, on 25th May. This is a do or die situation for Pakistan’s economy. So the leaders of this March should definitely come with a futuristic economic plan and tell the masses how will they get rid of this dire economic situation.
  5. While Srinagar Highway will be full of Marchers led by the so-called Ambassador of Kashmir, a big decision is expected to come from Srinagar about Yasin Malik. Unfortunately, it is expected that his sentencing maybe announced on 25th May as well.

The government also has limited options. They are arresting leaders of PTI. They are raiding houses in their own panic mode which will further incite the situation. The removal of fuel subsidiary has become inevitable and when it happens it will be the most unpopular decision. Rising, Inflation will cut purchasing power. Finalization of IMF program has brought them to a dead end.

The dread is in the air. 25th May is around the corner. It is Crucial. It is Do or Die for Pakistan. We must fear!!

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When Politics turns Personal; The Toxic Allegations & Accusations become a Norm

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Image source: timeofpakistan.com

There is something happening beneath this political turmoil which is NOT looking good!!

Whenever Political landscape turns into a Personal battleground, defeats become unacceptable. These past few days are a perfect case study to see that how Political elite in Pakistan has done whatever it took it to stay in power. In this power grab scenario, there could be numerous losses including the integrity of institutions. We have unfortunately entered into a very dangerous phase, where some political stakeholders have put all stakes at risk, where they have stretched their limits beyond a constitutional limit, all to gather mass support, all to stay in power and avoid defeat. Is it a threat of losing power? Is it a double game? Is it a practical hybrid war we are fighting?  Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to be good. All is at stake, all is at risk and all is toxic.

As if the political temperature was not noxious enough, Shireen Mazari Saga took place. Once again, accusations, allegations and assumptions started pouring in against the state institutions. Soon after her arrest, her daughter, a lawyer herself Imaan Zainab Mazari alleged that her mother was beaten by male police officers during the arrest. But few minutes later, a video clip surfaced that showed clearly that her mother was arrested by Female Police officers in broad daylight and as per the law. Lie number 1 of the daughter stood exposed. Within moments, without any cogent evidence the lady, known for many controversies in the past targeted state institution for such an act, although the anti-corruption already had taken responsibility of her arrest.

Abuse of power can never be tolerated, regardless of who it targets or from where it emanates. This mantra is true and everyone has an equal belief on it but let’s take a deep dive to see that how politics turned dirty in this case, how blame game took place and how this entire episode was used as a tool to churn propaganda against Army leadership and Armed Forces.

1. The anti-corruption police had arrested Shireen Mazari and she herself accepted that Prime Minister and Interior minister were responsible for my arrest. But the mother daughter nexus brazenly started blaming institutions without any solid evidence. Shouldn’t there be an inquiry on this too?

2. PTI was always of the opinion that why courts were opened mid night to send IK packing while he wasn’t listening to anyone however when same court gave a verdict in favor of PTI ex minister, late night, it was celebrated and much appreciated by Shireen Mazari & IK who have been spearheading anti judicial tirade until recently. Isn’t it blatant hypocrisy? Judicial inquiry has been ordered by the Court which is a positive sign, but the serious allegations which Mazari nexus have raised must also be inquired during this newly formed judicial inquiry. Should the Judiciary not question them on hurling these baseless allegations?

3. The present government, whose Police itself arrested Shireen Mazari disowned this attempt. Attorney General displayed his ignorance about the matter in front of the court. So, somehow the government created this impression in the public eye that they are not to be blamed for the arrest of Shireen Mazari. Was it a double game? Or a deliberate effort to discredit institutions?

Pakistan is already facing serious economic downfall, political uncertainty and civil strife. PTI has also announced Long March to Islamabad on 25th May which is likely to further exacerbate already fragile political and economic instability. It has become quite evident now for achieving petty political ends, our political elite has no serious resolve to address the crisis confronting the country. Country is being deliberately pushed to limits of economic and political dead end. The political immaturity and lack of vision to handle the crisis situation is also hurting the repute of institutions amidst internal political wrangling. If political leadership doesn’t come to grips of the critical situation prevailing which is likely to aggravate further in coming days, people of Pakistan in particular and the country in general are likely to suffer unprecedented damage. Political elite must put its acts together and steer the country out of prevalent political and economic crisis by showing sagacity and political wisdom until it’s too late.

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Accusations to Acknowledgement: The Battle of Article 63 A

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The weather is heating up. As the May is ending, Political temperatures are soaring. The fate regarding the country’s political and economic stability will be measured in the upcoming days. Earlier, PDM built momentum by taking on institutions. Maryam Nawaz raised the temperature by targeting key personalities and institutions. Allegations were bursting against the institutions in all dimensions. Today, we witness reversal of roles. Accusations have been outflowing in every Jalsa by PTI. But now suddenly, the “accusations” turned into “acknowledgment”. “Complaints” started transforming into “Compliments”. Is it the change of narrative? Is it another U-turn? Or is it the restoration of confidence in the institutions? Where will this chaos end?

The Supreme Court’s “decision” or as they say “opinion” or “binding” on Article 63 A has raised some pertinent questions on the status of CM Punjab election? In the interpretation of Article 63 A of the constitution, the Supreme court categorically condemns the practice of horse trading by calling it “a cancer afflicting the body politic”. Supreme Court in its decision of 3-2 rejected the vote count of these dissident members against the party directives. So the future of the Chief Executive of Punjab is now under threat because it is contrary to what happened in National Assembly. The political instability continues and the situation is messy.

In light of this verdict, Hamza has a support of 172 MPAs in Punjab assembly but at the same time, he also has 4 dissenting members which draws the figure to 168. Now further moving ahead, PTI and alliance also has a collective figure of 168 votes minus 21 dissenting members. The situation here in Punjab is way too complex now. A support of 186 members is required for a clear majority in Punjab assembly to formulate a government. This current Punjab government can either fall through a governor led vote of no confidence or a Supreme court order. The governor even has a right to dissolve the assembly with his discretionary powers according to Article 112 (2) of the constitution. Supreme Court has already made its decision on cross voting against Party fiat.  Now legal experts are interpreting the decision in their own dictionaries. What will happen in Punjab? What will happen on the federal level? Will there be an election call? If so, what will be the care taker setup? Will there be a fresh mandate? Who will make the hard economic decisions?  Lot needs to be answered in these crucial times.

From “My judges disappointed me” to “Thankyou Supreme Court”, a lot has happened and a lot is ready to take place. Islamabad is full of gossips, interpretations, whispers and predictions these days. There is something seething under this political turmoil. The Red zone is under a lot of pressure whether politically or economically. Pre – Elections, Elections and then Post elections, we have a lot of consequences of a lot of hard decisions. But hard decisions need to be taken. Question is who is ready to make the hard choices? Be Afraid!!

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