Opinion | Comment

The federalist promise

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin | Photo Credit: File photo/The Hindu

The recent speech by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin at the 23rd party congress of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kannur, Kerala will go down in political history for at least two reasons. First, Mr. Stalin, in both this speech and in prior statements and actions, has put forth a profound challenge to the model of ‘federalism’ that has become the foundational basis of public policy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government at the Centre.

Second, his speech could be considered an early signal of potential convergence — at least in an ideological, if not tactical, sense — of two radical-revolutionary political paradigms, Dravidianism and communism. This development might fuel momentum for a coalition of dissenting voices at the State level against a ham-handed Central government that appears to be penalising non-BJP-led State governments by weaponising certain aspects of public policy. Both dimensions of Mr. Stalin’s challenge are worth considering in closer detail.

Threats to State autonomy

First, as he elucidated at the CPI(M) congress in Kannur on April 9 — to thunderous applause for his allusion to the historical cultural connections between Tamil Nadu and Kerala — Mr. Stalin’s challenge to the model of federalism in vogue today is to question whether, in its current form, it is a cause and consequence of excessive concentration of power in the Central government. The ‘so what’ of his argument is that this comes at the cost of denying States their rightful place in the scheme of things as envisioned in the Constitution of India. This change is located in the context of implementations of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET), dissolution of the Planning Commission and the status of the National Development Council.

Among the greatest concerns voiced by Mr. Stalin and Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan at the CPI(M) congress was that the conduct of revenue sharing between the Centre and certain States has been less than satisfactory, out of line with Finance Commission recommendations, and that it has effectively cut off funding for policy implementation, which is the life blood of State administration.

It is not only Mr. Stalin’s speech. His recent visit to the nation’s capital was aimed precisely at attempted redress for the Tamil Nadu public exchequer suffering shortfalls owing to this situation: although the 14th Finance Commission had recommended ₹2,524.20 crore in performance grant to Tamil Nadu during the period from 2016-17 to 2019-20, the Union government released ₹494.99 crore for 2016-17. According to the memorandum Mr. Stalin handed over in person to Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, “Despite compliance with the conditions and furnishing of utilisation certificates, the grant for 2017-18 has not been released. Subsequently, the grants for 2018-19 and 2019-20 have also not been released.”

On Governors

In recent times Mr. Stalin has also flagged — as indeed have Mr. Vijayan and other non-BJP Chief Ministers — an alarming tendency for Governors of their respective States to break with hallowed constitutional tradition. This is taking the form of Governors getting involved in the minutiae of administration — normally considered the sole domain of the State executive — or holding up specific processes involving their office in a manner that tips political circumstances against the State government in question.

For example, in his Republic Day address this year, Tamil Nadu Governor R.N. Ravi set off a political firestorm when he called for States to adopt a three-language formula. This was a move that the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leadership clearly considered an affront to the State’s cherished Tamil linguistic identity and cultural ethos. The apparent gubernatorial overreach stung even more in the context of the 2019 protests in Tamil Nadu, which led to the dropping of a clause in the draft National Education Policy requiring mandatory Hindi lessons in schools.

Another instance of the Governor stepping beyond the routine constitutional duties and engaging in what some have described as pressing a thumb on the scales of State politics in favour of the Union government policy position is the inordinate delay by Raj Bhavan in Chennai in sending the Tamil Nadu NEET bill for presidential assent. In these two cases, the rightful indignation of Mr. Stalin and his colleagues stems from the fact that education, after all, has been on the Concurrent List since 1976.

Unity among dissenters

Tussles between the Centre and States are hardly new. State autonomy, as supported by the Sarkaria Commission, has been fiercely fought for across many decades and by Chief Ministers of every political hue — including vociferously on Twitter and beyond by the erstwhile Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, prior to 2014. Yet for Mr. Stalin and the DMK, the drive for self-determination of a people has a deeper meaning than mere squabbles over policy.

The resistance of both the DMK and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) to the very notion of Hindi imposition stems from decades of experience negotiating with an elitist, upper caste-dominated government entity in faraway Delhi — and pushing back against the latter’s repeated attempts to make inroads into the politics of a State that has largely been impermeable to its machinations. Indeed, the essence of the impulse that animated the Dravidian movement and in 1967 enabled the remarkable mobilisation of a smorgasbord of middle and lower castes against Brahmin dominance of the organs of the state came from the very same rejection of ‘Delhi politics’ that we are seeing the DMK battle today.

Regardless of whether it was the DMK or the AIADMK at the helm of affairs in Tamil Nadu, since the late 1960s, the ‘social contract’ of Dravidian party leaders with their constituents has revolved around mass welfare policies as a key vector of resource allocation, specifically redistribution towards poorer and marginalised sections of society.

This historical trend has resulted in Tamil Nadu consistently performing well in terms of human development indicators — provisioning of public goods such as health and education has always been consistent with this form of ‘paternalist populism’. It leaves a few unanswered questions in terms of financing for these worthy policies. To what extent can revenue from an over-regulated liquor sector offset the considerable dent in public finances that these policies entail? To what extent do these policies cripple the working population from looking beyond ‘freebies’ towards productive employment and income-generating activities? These are tough questions that the Dravidian movement is yet to provide satisfactory answers for.

Pro-poor impulse

But it explains why the question of public finance support from the Central government matters greatly in Tamil Nadu at the present juncture — as it does in Kerala, where there is a class element undergirding public policy based on the pro-poor redistributive intent of the CPI(M). It drives leaders like Mr. Stalin and Mr. Vijayan to take on the Central government for under-delivering on their revenue-sharing promises, especially at a time when State taxes are at a low ebb owing to the moribund state of economic activity in a post-COVID economy.

Geography of federalism

In batting on the front foot for clearly defined values of this unique social movement, Mr. Stalin has made a strong claim as a deserving legatee of the mantle of his late father, former Chief Minister and Dravidian movement stalwart M. Karunanidhi. While there were genuine questions in May 2021 about his capability to govern an entire State when he took up the Chief Ministerial berth, Mr. Stalin proved that his days as Mayor of Chennai and Deputy Chief Minister under the tutelage of his father only honed his political instinct. Along the way he appears to have genuinely imbibed something of the spirit of Dravidian politics. If this spirit finds resonance in States such as Kerala and West Bengal, perhaps even Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, there is a possibility that an alternative governance ethos to saffron politics may be around the corner.


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Printable version | Apr 20, 2022 10:21:13 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-federalist-promise/article65334811.ece