As Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi often complained that the Central government was sitting too heavily on the States. Recently, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee alleged that “India’s federal structure is being bulldozed by the unilateral, arbitrary action of the Centre.”
Ms. Banerjee has often espoused the idea that the powers of the Central government should be limited to a few areas like external affairs and defence. Muhammad Ali Jinnah too had wanted it that way. It was something which the Congress along with communal electorates, had quite rightly rejected, paving the way for Partition in 1947.
Promoting the federal idea now, merely to counter Mr. Modi, will be disastrous. Any more power to the States would mean making Central authority weaker. It is in India holding itself together that its constituent parts have the most to gain — a big common market with the free movement of labour, for instance. Realising this, even large regional parties like the DMK and the RJD, while not ready to cede power on home ground, have shown a strong preference for a Congress-led coalition to replace the Modi-led NDA.
Constitutionally, India is a Union, not a federation, of States with a Central government empowered to intervene in State affairs in several ways and even split them. There is an unstated bias in the Constitution for national-level parties to run the Central government. Non-Congress, non-BJP parties have held power at the Centre for less than five of the 71 years since Independence. The first of these in 1977 lasted a mere two years and 126 days; the others did not last even a year. It is obvious that the country could see off threats and achieve significant all-round progress only under firm Central control with parties having a pan-India appeal in power, by themselves, or as the strongest constituents of coalitions at the Centre. The most dismal periods were when squabbling coalitions ran the Central government.
Although India is not a federation, the country’s Constitution has, in the Rajya Sabha, ensured a strong forum for the States. It is a tribute to this institution that the NDA, despite having an overwhelming majority in the Lok Sabha, has not been allowed to have its way all the time. Added to this, the Constitution also created a powerful Supreme Court that checks the Central government from arbitrary exercise of its authority. This is about as far as India can go and yet expect to stay together.
As Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru most feared the “fissiparous tendencies” that could break India. It was to safeguard against such a possibility that he ensured the Constitution stopped well short of casting India as a federation. Time has shown how right he was.
The writer has taught public policy and contemporary history at IISc Bengaluru