Renewing India’s federalism pledge

Politics and economy the world over are moving towards more centralisation of authority. India needs to refashion federalism as a multidimensional framework for nation building, with the BJP being a key stakeholder

August 15, 2022 04:30 am | Updated 12:55 pm IST

Devotees taking dips at the Sangam, the confluence of the Yamuna, the Ganges, and the Saraswati, during the Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh.

Devotees taking dips at the Sangam, the confluence of the Yamuna, the Ganges, and the Saraswati, during the Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh. | Photo Credit: AP

A nation mobilised to face a crisis such as an external war or imperial occupation pushes its internal differences to the background. The leaders of the Indian national movement responded to demands of social reforms to the extent that it was essential for, and within the limits of, preserving unity. In the words of M.K. Gandhi, “protection of neglected classes should not be carried to an extent which will harm them and harm the country.” Seventy-five years after Independence, India is being mobilised for an era of national resurgence. Prime Minister Narendra Modi calls it the Amrit Kaal, the 25-year lead-up to 100 years of Independence. National unity is paramount; duty comes before rights, according to him. India is expected to realise its potential as the world leader, Vishwaguru, and this requires it to be in a permanent state of mobilisation. This new nationalist fervour is being championed by Hindutva. Some constituent groups of the nation, particularly its religious and ethnic minorities, are unnerved. To manage its diversity and leap forward, India needs a new framework — a new federalism compact.

The global trend is towards centralisation. National sovereignty came back with a vengeance from 9/11. Two successive economic crises and a pandemic reinforced that trend. The crises of our times are global — from climate change to terrorism, shaky economic models to pandemics. Strong national governments are expected to be driving this era — not multinational bodies, or provincial authorities, or village councils. Technology incentivises, enables and legitimises centralisation. The elimination of intermediaries from political and economic negotiations is seen as desirable and achievable, with central powers negotiating directly with the people. JAM (Jan Dhan, Aadhaar, Mobile) is celebrated for its efficiency and transparency as opposed to the inefficiencies, leakages and delays that are inevitable in federalised governance structures.

2014: A turn more than a rupture

The three decades preceding 2014 had witnessed a weakening of the Centre by global treaties and coalition politics in India. Regional parties and the civil society had gained a bigger say in governance. The BJP and the Congress were the alternating axes around which these coalitions of regional and caste outfits took shape. Even foreign policy, earlier out of bounds for domestic politics, opened up for legitimate contestations in this era. The decisive victory of the BJP in 2014 under Mr. Modi brought the curtains down on that.

But to characterise that turn as a clean break from an original republicanism would be an exaggeration. The break has been more in rhetoric than in substance. There was very little autonomy left for Kashmir, but in 2019, the dismemberment of Article 370 and the State itself was turned into a nationalist spectacle. Central laws such as Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, which give arbitrary powers to the state, were shaped by the Congress too. The Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime, which has fundamentally altered Indian federalism, is owned equally by the Congress and the BJP. Both parties may have shown federalist instincts, too. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, for instance, added more languages to the Eighth Schedule, created the Bodoland Territorial Council, and two States that tribal communities had longed for decades. The legacies of centralisation and federalism in India are shared by the BJP and the Congress. This is the reason why regional parties can switch from one side to the other with no sense of contradiction or remorse, as Bihar’s Kurmi leader, Nitish Kumar, has done yet again. That said, the long arc of independent India's history bends towards more centralisation.

The year 2014, though, was different. India saw the rise of what I have called Hindutva 2.0, which has been more responsive to lower caste aspirations and exclusionary towards Muslims than any other political formation before it. It modified the nucleus of political power, with upper caste Hindus at its social core, and Hindi-speaking regions as its geographical core, where it mobilised lower-caste masses. To be precise, Hindutva’s geographical core is above the Vindhyas, from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal. Hindu epics call this region the Aryavarta, where dharma is safe and order intact.

Today, the BJP has around 250 members in the Lok Sabha without counting anyone from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, the eight States of the Northeast, the Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir, and the Sikh majority Punjab. With members from States such as Assam, Karnataka and Odisha added, it has 303 of the 543 Lok Sabha seats. With 37% votes, it has 55% of the Lok Sabha seats. But more disequilibrium is coming. After 2031, India is constitutionally bound to enforce the ‘one person, one vote’ principle, that pious tenet of representative democracy, countrywide. Now, roughly 18 lakh people in in Tamil Nadu and 16 lakh in Kerala elect a Lok Sabha member; in Bihar and Rajasthan, it takes around 25 lakh. When Lok Sabha constituencies are redrawn to ensure that all of them have roughly equal numbers of voters, Tamil Nadu could lose 11 of its 39 seats and Kerala, six of its 20.

Tensions: emerging and existing

Tensions in the organising principles and structure of the nation at this juncture are of two kinds – one, among constituents within the heartland, and two, between the heartland and the peripheries. In the heartland, though Hindutva has undoubtably established a rainbow coalition of all castes within its umbrella, mutinies fester and groups yearn for autonomy. Symbolic empowerment and representation at various levels, such as a tribal woman succeeding a Dalit as President or of the Prime Minister expressing pride of belonging to an Other Backward Classes (OBC), inspire lower castes. But caste tensions simmer. Two religious minorities — the Muslims and Sikhs — are powerless, restive and fearful. The agitations against the farm laws and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in the recent past were instructive.

There is disequilibrium in the relationship between the Hindi heartland and regions in the south, the Northeast and Kashmir. Harder border policies; the promotion of Hindi; centralisation of policing, fiscal governance, and policymaking in a range of subjects; and the GST regime are some reasons for this. The Hindi heartland’s relationship with West Bengal, Maharashtra and Gujarat, where regionalism still has mass appeal, is different, though. After all, it was in these three regions where the intellectual foundations of India as a nation, and of a Hindu Rashtra, were laid. Regionalism and Hindutva alternate easily here.

Emptied slogans: Social justice and secularism

There were two frameworks for negotiating power-sharing in the heartland: secularism and social justice. In a deeply religious society, secularism was power-sharing between Hindus, and Muslims and other religious minorities, while social justice became a code for power-sharing across Hindu castes. The rise of Hindutva 2.0 and the dismemberment of secularism and social justice are mutually reinforcing and there are reasons for it.

The upper castes among the Muslims had monopolised the power that they bargained on behalf of the community, at the cost of women and the depressed classes among them; they tested the Gandhian limits of accommodation quoted earlier. The call by Syed Shahabuddin to boycott the Republic Day in 1987 was a key turning point as was his rabble-rousing on Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses and the Shah Bano case. Even after Pasmanda Muslims had begun articulating their frustrations, the secular camp’s choice as Vice President for 10 long years was Syed Hamid Ansari, a retired bureaucrat with little connection with the Muslim masses. The Hindutva outreach to the community is specifically focused on the women and the backward classes among them. The community as a whole materially lagged behind the rest as the Sachar Committee revealed, but they were accused of being recipients of undue privileges.

The rise of Hindutva also corresponded with their political disempowerment. In the current Lok Sabha, there are 27 Muslims members; a proportionate representation would be 80. This continuing eviction of 14% of the population from political power is not merely an abomination for a democratic society, but dangerous to the nation.

But a secular-communal distinction, which was always untenable, has completely lost its relevance. The median Hindi-speaking Hindu perceives secularism as giving special rights to Muslims, and ridiculing of their religiosity. A more acceptable approach would be what Thomas Piketty calls ‘social federalism’. This, he says, can be a transnational framework for building a more just and equitable order for sharing power and resources across peoples. Incidentally, he counts caste quotas of India as one possible model to deal with situations of inequality, and we shall come to that now.

A major reason for the erosion of secularism’s moral legitimacy, along with its usurpation by the Muslim elites for personal gains, has been the failure of its champions to be more inclusive towards lower castes. Hindu leaders who stood up for secularism today face the charge of using Muslims as a vote bank and capturing power for their families. Original republican consensus involved Group Differentiated Citizenship (GDC) rights for Dalits and tribals. The middle rungs — the OBCs or middle castes — were largely excluded from power. As the political situation changed, OBCs won power in the heartland with the support of Muslims. But social justice politics as we knew it is gasping for breath, in the chokehold of a handful of corrupt dynasties. Social justice has come to denote corruption, violence by a clutch of dominant castes, and mis-governance in general, in the heartland.

Hindutva has simultaneously moved in, promising, in Mr. Modi’s words. ‘real social justice’. It thrives on the increasing religiosity among the OBCs and offers them more representation. Of the 22 Rajya Sabha seats it allotted recently, the BJP gave more than half to weaker sections; of the 10 that the Congress gave, eight went to members of upper castes. The BJP has brought the number of its Muslim parliamentarians down to zero.

This does not mean that Hindutva has resolved heartland’s caste conflicts. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has not overcome its historical disapproval of caste quotas; by implementing a 10% quota for the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS), the concept of caste quotas has been debased. The EWS quota, in practice, is a quota for upper castes. While the BJP is increasing their presence in its tent, overall, the OBCs find their political representation shrunken from the heydays of social justice parties. The Centre under the BJP has a particular antipathy towards Ambedkarite outfits. The sledgehammer of the state on such outfits is ruthless. Simultaneously, the party has been appropriating Ambedkar's legacy. All these contradictions will require resolutions. Social justice as a slogan has lost its capacity to be the vehicle for that conversation; on the other hand, social federalism has that capacity.

Language of trouble

The BJP is pushing for replacing English with Hindi as the link language of the country, while simultaneously promoting regional languages. This creates friction between heartland and non-Hindi regions, and also unsettles the middle class that sees English as emancipatory. Hindi is expanding and its dominance is inevitable — Hindi-speaking regions have higher fertility than the rest. People from these regions will migrate to non-Hindi regions, the centres of economic growth in the west and the south, where native populations are ageing and fertility is declining. The bulk of the popular culture is produced in Hindi and carried to the remotest corners of the country. In Kerala, for instance, grandmothers try to converse with Bengali migrant labourers not in Malayalam or Bengali or English, but in Hindi. Home Minister Amit Shah’s dream of Hindi as a link language is not impossible. English cannot be banished, nor can Hindi be stopped.

Apart from the demographic patterns driven by natural and economic factors, India is also on the cusp of a policy-driven population management. Population management — controlling birth, migration, classification etc. — all have been integral parts of modern state building. The BJP’s plans are ambitious and controversial. The National Population Register, the CAA, population management laws, the reworking of the Census operation, etc. are on the table. A new window for Hindus from Bangladesh to legally enter India might open in the coming years, but a similar window is not open for Tamil Hindus from Sri Lanka, incidentally. Seventy-five years ago, the Aryavarta region was the theatre for the biggest displacement and relocation of humanity. Technology will make the coming round of population management more efficient and centralised, potentially triggering upheavals.

Last year, Tamil Nadu Finance Minister Palanivel Thiagarajan had said it was unfair that Tamil Nadu and Goa had the same representation in the GST Council despite the massive difference in the sizes of their economies. There is more coming — regions and States that contibute more to national economic growth will receive less in central allocation, lose more political representation, and have their cultural autonomy threatened. This combination can be a recipe for instability, if it is not managed better.

Federalism as a multidimensional framework

Captured by dynastic elites, concepts of social justice, secularism and regional autonomy face a massive crisis of legitimacy. Federalism, infused with new meanings, and freed from unhelpful connotations, can be the conceptual framework to negotiate existing and emerging challenges before the country.

Firstly, federalism has to be understood and used as a framework for cooperation, common goals and collective action. It is not a battle cry for a Centre-State confrontation. Federalism is not incitement, but the solution to the problem of instability and disequilibrium. It is the tool of the nation-builder, not the slogan of the separatist.

Second, federalism has to be understood as a dynamic and multidimensional concept, in contrast with a linear notion of vertical power-sharing between a Centre and provinces. Only then will minorities within minorities and communities that actually lost out in the earlier power distribution get justice. What is the autonomy of Kashmir worth without the same rights for its Hindus and tribals? What is meaningful about social justice that is expropriated by dominant castes? To apply federalism in a multidimensional manner will require a whole new set of legal and institutional arrangements — to name just two, resolving the questions related to sub-categorisation of quotas, and Supreme Court benches in regions.

Third, federalism cannot be the instrument for provincial elites to capture all power and monopolise all representation as has been the evident trend in the recent past. No Chief Minister in India wants to share any power with anyone else. That trend delegitmises the entire premise of federalism. Similarly, Muslim cultural autonomy cannot be a facade to perpetuate gender injustice. Telugu nationalists had feared the dominance of Tamil at one point.

Fourth, federalism is not a blueprint for a political battle between the BJP and non-BJP parties. While the BJP is a hugely centralising force as it stands today, it also has a high stake in the continuing stability and unity of India. The BJP’s commitment to federalism is questioned by its opponents, who often cite Sangh Parivar texts in support of their argument. Relying on original texts and speeches of a political philosophy or religion presupposes that they cannot evolve. That is fundamentally problematic, as parties, movements and leaders evolve. All parties in India have changed their positions on important issues over time. In fact, the BJP’s growth has been an outcome of its ability to adapt, innovate and tailor itself to geographical and temporal requirements. For instance, as the BJP tries to make inroads into Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, it will assess what the viable routes can be.

So, what the Amrit Kaal needs is a new discussion on equitable power-sharing and resource-sharing across regions, castes, linguistic group and genders. That will be essential for India’s progress, anchored in a new federalism compact.

Varghese K. George is Resident Editor, The Hindu, Delhi

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