The historical context of federalism in India
In the wake of the controversy over the proposed National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), the debate over federalism has atracted a lot of attention. Most of the chief ministers, who have opposed the NCTC, have opposed it on the grounds that the Centre is trying to encroach upon the powers of the states. This goes against the principle of federalism, a principle although not enshrined explicitly in the Indian constitution, but upheld by the Supreme Court. In the Bommai judgement, the Supreme Court stated that ‘federalism envisaged in the Constitution is a basic structure’.
The problem of federalism in India is directly related to the rule of the Congress party since independence. Congress party, once Gandhi became its tallest leader in the 1920s, was about running a national movement of common effort to overthrow the British rule. Gandhi did advocate a decentralised government based on village panchayats, but his own charisma and rarely challenged leadership in the party produced a highly centralised campaign. Leaders like Nehru, Patel and Azad were national leaders but even those leaders who drew their power from regional bases — GB Pant, BC Roy, Morarji Desai or C Rajagopalachari — had a national outlook. When Congress ruled eight provinces from 1937 to 1939 after winning the limited elections held under the 1935 Government of India Act, it actually evolved unitary mechanisms such as the Central Parliamentary Board to direct the functioning of the provincial ministries.
Post-independence, Congress party continued to rule at most of the states, besides being in power at Delhi. Because its own command structure in the party functioned between the state governments and the union government, the constitutional provisions and mechanisms of centre-state relations were not used. Because everything seemed to function smoothly, no one paid much attention to it. The processes and systems of dealings between the states and the centre, outside the party processes, never evolved. This means that while other democratic processes and systems in the Indian Republic have matured over the last 62 years, the centre-state relations have really evolved only during the last 30 years. With the decline in the quality of leadership across the political spectrum, even this evolution has often been hampered by fractious and parochial interests.
Notwithstanding the lag in evolution of centre-state relations in independent India, the problem has been further worsened by a Congress party that is fast losing its dominance in the states. As the Congress party’s dominance in the states has faded, its governments in the Centre have excessively used the centralising features of the constitution to compensate for its waning powers. The constant friction, not only with the states ruled by the opposition but by the Congress party’s own allies, is a direct outcome of that tendency.
This, however, doesn’t mean that the states are right in their views. It is always easy to dispute the efficacy of federalism because distribution of resources and power is inherently contentious. If federalism is about decentralisation and devolution of powers to lower levels, most of these states have failed to set an example. Almost all these state governments are ruled by leaders — from Jayalalitha to Naveen Patnaik to Mamata Banerjee to Narendra Modi — who act like regional satraps and concentrate all the powers in their own hands. It is easy to point out their hypocrisy but the low credibility of the Congress party has allowed them to use federalism as a bumper sticker to further their political cases.
In the system of bargained federalism that we have in India, there is unlikely to be a perfect state of federalism between the centre and the states. It will continue to swing like a pendulum between the two extremes of centralisation better serving national unity and federalism better serving the individual citizen. The arc of swing of the pendulum has undeniably reduced over a period of time, and while the pendulum will never attain a stationary position, we can hope that the arc of swing gets progressively smaller with each passing year. That is how constitutional republics evolve over time. And India should be no different.
For those who doubt the theory of the reducing arc of swing, the arc has already reduced over the last 60 years. Here is what the Bharatiya Jana Sangh’s election manifesto for the 1957 Lok Sabha elections had promised at Page 7: The party would declare ‘Bharat to be a unitary state’ because the federal structure had created rivalries between the central and state governments that are an obstacle to national solidarity. On 17 August 1964, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya presented ‘Principles and Polices’ at the Jana Sangh General Council Meeting in Gwalior, where the party offered a plan to abolish the states and legislatures and to replace them with large administrative districts having no legislative functions, which would be reserved for Parliament. (Both references from Garnville Austin’s ‘Working a Democratic Constitution’).
When a former Chief Justice of India, Mehr Chand Mahajan wrote an article in 1956 suggesting “doing away with the federal constitution and making it a unitary system of government with abolition of state legislatures and state ministries, the states to be merely administrative units to be governed by Governors with the help of advisory bodies”, C Rajagopalachari wrote back to him approvingly. The then President Rajendra Prasad responded in a letter to Justice Mahajan that it was necessary to safeguard the Constitution as it exists.
Rajendra Prasad’s advice was as valid in 1956 as it is today. Let us safeguard the constitution as it exists. The political jousting over federalism is a routine process of evolution of a constitutional republic. The pendulum of this debate may be swinging, but the arc of swing is reducing. We should be happy that is the way it is.