April 22, 2012
M. Serajul Islam
We were told by our professors in the Department of Political Science in Dhaka University back in the 1960s that India was not the perfect example of federation as the United States. India they taught us was a quasi-federation where the centre was the dominant authority and the provinces had to depend on most major issues for favour of the centre. The other difference that made the Indian centre strong at the time of independence was the fact that the centre gave powers to the provinces; in fact since independence, the centre also created some of the Indian provinces. Conversely, in US, the states came together and formed the federation and voluntarily gave it the powers they thought were necessary for the federal government.
Things had not changed much in centre-province relations even into the 1980s. In fact, when Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister of India, the centre was still powerful and dominant. Then Chief Minister of West Bengal now Paschim Bangla Jyoti Basu had called Rajiv Gandhi a second rate commercial pilot when he was yet to be the Prime Minister of India. Rajiv Gandhi did not forget that compliment. Upon becoming the Prime Minister, he made West Bengal pay for their Chief Minister’s indiscretion.
The present Prime Minister of India Dr. Manmohon Singh must be regretting every day these days that the good days of being an Indian Prime Minister vis-a-vis the provinces are over as the Chief Ministers of the once weak provinces flex their muscles to make him dance to their tunes. Not too long ago, the Paschim Bangla’s mercurial Chief Minister Mamata Banarjee not only showed her power to the Prime Minister, she embarrassed New Delhi when the agreement of the water sharing of the Teesta l with Bangladesh had to be taken off the table at literally the eleventh hour. In fact, that act of Mamata Banarjee has sent Bangladesh-India relations off track right when the two countries appeared to be headed for coming together on issues of common interests after 4 decades of conflict ridden and mutually damaging bilateral relations.
Mamata Banarjee achieved a first in the history of centre-state relationship or federalism in India by that act. She rendered the Indian Prime Minister powerless to act on a major foreign policy issue on the plea that water is a provincial subject. Such a division of powers never stopped the centre from acting unilaterally in foreign affairs in the past. The question that a province would have the audacity of challenging the centre on a foreign policy matter was something that was totally inconceivable when the constitution was drafted and decades thereafter.
The ability of a provincial Chief Minister like Mamata Banarjee to make the centre powerless is now visible more explicitly in India’s domestic politics where it is New Delhi that is more at the receiving end. Provincial power galore was in evidence in the recent Annual Conference of the Chief Ministers on Internal Security in New Delhi. Chief Ministers of provinces ruled by parties in opposition at the centre and one ruled by a party that is a coalition partner of the Congress led UPA came together on the issue of the proposed National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), a federal anti-terror organization modeled after the US Centre of the same. They bombarded the Prime Minister and the Home Minister. Both were present at the inaugural session of the Annual Conference for designing to use the NCTC to destroy the careful balance of power in India’s federal structure that they said had been achieved painstakingly over the years.
The Chief Ministers considered the NCTC as “federally intrusive”. They also expressed strong opposition over the Railways Protection Force and the Border Security Force Acts. They considered these Acts as instruments with which the Centre was interfering with contempt into the powers of the provinces. Narendra Modi of Gujarat articulated the mood of the provinces by stating that New Delhi was using/would use the central intelligence agencies under powers derived from these Acts and the proposed NCTC to “browbeat” the law enforcing agencies of the provinces into submission. Tamil Nadu’s J. Jayalalitha stated unequivocally that as police is a provincial subject, the powers of these establishments in the provinces “is not acceptable.”
Biju Patnaki of Orissa joined Narendra Modi and J. Jayalalitha in the attack on the Centre. The trio in fact left the Annual Conference soon after the inaugural to meet at the Tamil Nadu Bhavan in New Delhi where they tried to further the cause of regional power over the centre. The meeting at the Tamil Nadu Bhavan was nothing short of a rebellion against the centre’s power for at the Tamil Nadu Bhavan, the trio also discussed their dislike for the centre’s way of dealing with the provinces with “utter disrespect.”
Till end of the 1960s, when India was ruled by the Congress where the provincial interests and conflicts were represented and resolved, there was no question of any province daring the centre. Despite the problems that Indira Gandhi faced in the 1970s, the forces opposing the Congress dissipated and it again emerged as a dominant all-India party in the 1980s. It receded again in the 1990s but when the BJP emerged nationally, India showed the signs of emerging into a stable two-party democratic system in a federal structure with a strong centre. At the turn of the century and into the new millennium, that prospect also dissipated. Both Congress and BJP as national parties have today become weak and no longer capable to form a government at the centre on their own strength. That weakness in turn made the centre weak s well.
Both parties have become dependent on the regional parties to form a central government. Before either realized, these small regional parties soon demonstrated that they also had the power to make a government fall in the centre as well. It is this power to help form a government and to make it fall that is the real reason that has changed India from a quasi federation of the past where the provinces received what they were given by the centre to a federal system where the provinces demand and receive what they want from New Delhi.
Nevertheless, the transformation of the Indian federation leading to a weak centre and powerful provinces is still in transition. In New Delhi, the “trio” tried to send a loud message that the days of a powerful centre is over by heralding the emergence of a “Third-Fourth Front.”. They succeeded in so far as diverting media attention from the main event that was the Annual Conference to the Tamil Nadu Bhavan from where they delivered the message of provincial power. The absence of the Chief Ministers of Paschim Bangla, UP and Bihar, the last two leading provinces from the Hindi heartland, whose parties together have 60 Lok Sabha seats, took a lot of sting away from the message that the trio had wanted to give India and ensured that the “Third-Fourth Front” would be still born. Nevertheless, the powerful CMs who abstained are also advocates of provincial power with the redoubtable Mamata Banarjee one of them and stayed from the New Delhi meeting on different reasons.
New Delhi however must have heaved a sigh of relief because the divisions among the Provinces kept them apart from delivering a united message for a weak Centre despite the recent surge of provincial power in India. This notwithstanding, the golden days of a powerful centre that could take the provinces for granted is now a matter of the past that should raise worries about India’s political future.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt