Autonomy for the States, federalism at the Centre

Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi

The time is ripe now for establishing a true federal system that will strengthen the bonds of mutual cooperation, unity, and cordiality between the Centre and the States.

The DMK is of the view that for proper and ideal Centre-State relations, there should be more powers for the States. To be more appropriate and precise, there should be autonomy for the States and federalism at the Centre.

The demand for restructuring Centre-State relations is as old as the adoption of the Constitution of India in 1950. The creation of a new structure of constitutional government for independent India deserves to be seen in historical context, particularly by taking into account the objective political situation that existed then. In fact, political imperatives emerging out of the independence movement historically as well as the immediate imperatives of the Partition of India influenced the design of government incorporated in the Constitution. On the one hand, the framers, drawing the spirit of the independence movement, found the federal scheme appropriate for India; on the other hand, Partition created a fear of centrifugal elements in the nascent nation.

Indeed, the major part of the history of the struggle for self-rule and independence reflects efforts to find a solution to India’s gigantic diversity. Even the mobilisation for the national movement was based on federal principles. The acceptance of language as the basis for redrawing the provincial boundary, for example, was a result of such a mobilisation. The history of federalism and Centre-State relations in India is marked by political mobilisation and intermittent struggle to fashion a more federal set-up. Even though such efforts have not yet resulted in any major constitutional changes towards a more federal orientation, the struggle has not been entirely fruitless.

In the phase lasting until the last 1960s, the task of nation building and development was the main concern of the nation’s rulers. However, this period was not solely dominated by the trend of centralisation. One of the major democratic movements in the post-Independence period — the movement for the formation of the linguistic States — took place in the 1950s, which resulted in the formation of linguistic States in 1956. The Central government resisted this demand and gave in — in the face of strong popular movements. This laid the basis for the later assertion by the States for greater powers.

“It is the Sappers and Miners who go in advance clearing the bushes and the thorns and preparing the way for the tanks in the Army. I plead with the ruling party to use us as Sappers and Miners to clear the way for them. We are not mindful of the dust we would gather in the course of this task. The ruling party should utilise our services for getting more powers transferred from the Centre to the States.” It may be borne in mind that these were the words Arignar Anna [C. N. Annadurai, who became Chief Minister a decade later] spoke fifty years ago, on May 6, 1957, in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly.

The second phase began with the 1967 general elections. Non-Congress State governments came into being. The demand for restructuring of Centre-State relations picked up momentum. In this connection, it may be useful to recall the impression of Arignar Anna, gathered by him as the Chief Minister. In his last epistle to his brethren titled “Hail, The Dawn!” published in Home Rule in January 1969, he wrote about “Federalism” and about our Constitution, “which on paper is federal but in actual practice tends to get more and more centralised.” After the passing of Arignar Anna in February 1969, when I was asked to bear the burden of responsibility, I continued the tenor and tone of our towering teacher and mentor.

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam decided to carry on a campaign on Centre-State relations in a systematic and scientific manner. It was on March 17, 1969, during my first visit to New Delhi as Chief Minister — in the course of answering searching questions on a wide range of subjects by over fifty newsmen representing newspapers from all over the country — that I said the Government was considering the setting up of an Expert Committee to go into the question of Centre-State relations and recommend the powers that should be transferred from the Centre to the States. On August 19, 1969, I announced on the floor of the Legislative Assembly the formation of a Three Member Committee with Dr. P.V. Rajamannar as Chairman and Dr. A.L. Mudaliar and P. Chandra Reddy as Members.

In February 1970, in the DMK Conference in Tiruchy, in order to take the Will of Arignar Anna to the hearts of partymen, a popular slogan, “Autonomy for the States; Federalism at the Centre,” was given and it started reverberating through the length and breadth of the States.

With a view to taking the concept of State autonomy to the people, the DMK conducted on September 12 and 13, 1970, a State Autonomy Conference at Anna Nagar, Chennai. Thanthai Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, Quaid-e-Milleth Ismail, the then West Bengal Chief Minister, Ajoy Mukherjee, Pranab Mukherjee, N. Srikandan Nair, Arangil Sridharan, S.M. Krishna, and a number of MPs and leaders participated. I presided over the conference.

In its 1971 Election Manifesto, the DMK announced: “Though the Constitution of India is described as a Federal one, the balance is more tilted towards the Centre and hence the States are not able to function freely in the administrative and financial spheres. Only such powers as are necessary for the Centre to preserve the strength of India should be assigned to the Centre and all the other powers should be left to the States without impairing the ideal of a strong India.”

The report of the Rajamannar Committee was received on May 27, 1971. On April 16, 1974, I moved a historic resolution in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly requesting the Central government to accept the views of the Tamil Nadu government on State autonomy and the recommendations of the Rajamannar Committee and proceed to effect immediate changes in the Constitution of India to establish a truly federal set-up. In 1974, Murasoli Maran, an inimitable ideologue of the DMK, brought out a brilliant treatise on State autonomy. He explained in simple and effective language decentralisation and federalism; devolution and provincial autonomy; the nature of the Indian Constitution; and the basis for State autonomy.

For the first time, in 1989, a National Front coalition government headed by V.P. Singh, which included major regional parties like the DMK, took office at the Centre. Though short-lived, this government took certain steps to strengthen the federal principle. The Inter-State Council was constituted in 1990. The entry of regional parties in coalition governments at the Centre became a regular feature in 1996 with the formation of the United Front government and in all subsequent ones — and presently in the United Progressive Alliance government functioning under the esteemed guidance of Sonia Gandhi. The Left parties, which supported both the National Front Government in 1989 and the United Front government in 1996-1998 and the present UPA government, are strong supporters of the federal principle.

Attempts have been made to impose a unitary form of government in the country. The character of India as a multinational, multilingual, multi-religious state has been blatantly ignored. The relevant recommendations of the Sarkaria Commission on the restructuring of Centre-State relations have not been accepted and implemented in true spirit — as a result of which there has been a persistent trend of centralisation of economic and political powers in the country. The time is ripe now [for a transformation] with almost every major political party realising — by sheer experience and because of objective conditions — the need to establish a true federal system that would strengthen the bonds of mutual cooperation, unity, and cordiality between the Centre and the States.

It needs to be remembered that only the spirit of “co-operative federalism” — and not an attitude of dominance or superiority — can preserve the balance between the Union and the States and promote the good of the people. Under our constitutional system, no single entity can claim superiority. Sovereignty does not lie in any one institution or in any one wing of the government. The power of governance is distributed in several organs and institutions — a sine qua non for good governance. Even if we assume that the Centre has been given a certain dominance over the States, that dominance should be used strictly for the purpose intended, not for oblique purposes. An unusual and extraordinary power like the one contained in Article 356 cannot be employed for furthering the prospects of a political party or to destabilise a duly elected government and a duly constituted Legislative Assembly. The consequences of such improper use may not be evident immediately. But those do not go without any effect. Their consequences become evident in the long run and may be irreversible.

As the DMK is wedded to the principle of more powers to the States to ensure a true federal set-up in India, it has been ceaselessly and tirelessly underlining this principle wherever the occasion arises. It may be recalled that in the Governor’s address of January 20, 2007, in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly, it has been explained that “this Government, holding Arignar Anna’s principle of State Autonomy close to its heart, while voicing its demand for rights and at the same time extending a hand of friendship, shall endeavour to secure the due rights and benefits for our State from the Union Government.”

(The writer is Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and president of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. His unprecedented record of half a century as a legislator was celebrated recently in Chennai.)

Recommended for you