Current Public Administration Magazine (March - 2016) - Restructuring our federal polity, need for fresh perspective on autonomy

Sample Material of Current Public Administration Magazine

Polity, Constitution and Governance

Restructuring our federal polity, need for fresh perspective on autonomy

IT is a matter of fact that the Constituent Assembly of India (dominated by the Congress leadership and with the absence of a lobby seeking the protection of the rights of the states) created a highly centralised system to deal with the then uncertain political situation in the country.

The impact of the partition of India and the consequent law and order problem, the rehabilitation of refugees, the issue of integration of princely states the need for rebuilding the economy on a planned and balanced manner, and the need to set up a system for meeting external and internal threats to the security of the new-born nation — all these factors influenced the thinking of the founding fathers to create a strong and powerful centre.

The states were assigned limited powers (the State List consists of 47 subjects) and these were totally made dependent on the Centre for financial requirements.

The Constitution also talks of the great ideal of an egalitarian society, socio-economic justice, the dignity of every individual by incorporating a set of fundamental rights and the Directive Principles of State Policy.

It also created an apex court (the Supreme Court) for evenly holding the balance of power between the Centre and the states and for upholding fundamental freedoms of all citizens.

The working of the federal polity over the past 50 years has, however, belied these expectations, urges and aspirations of the People. Nearly 40 per cent of the people are living below poverty line. The rich are becoming richer and the poor poorer. For many poverty, hunger, illiteracy, lack of drinking water and the basic health care facilities are the reality.

The highly centralised system of government (with control over 97 subjects in the Union List, including 66 subjects listed in the Concurrent List) has not been able to achieve the goal of egalitarian society as promised in the high sounding and pious words of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity to all solemnly proclaimed in the Preamble to the Constitution.

The Congress led by Jawahar Lal Nehru (a person of sterling qualities and the product of western ideas) assumed the reins of administration and for 17 long years remained at the helm by evolving a system of governance under its monopoly rule which led to the stranglehold of the Union Government over the states.

The Constitution became a tool in the hands of the ruling elite or dynastic rule of the Nehru family. Rule of the Congress both at the Centre and the states helped this process. Not only this India, indeed came to be governed from the Prime Minister’s Office. Delhi became a Mecca of worship for the nominated Congress Chief Ministers who sought the blessings and the guidance of the Prime Minister for running the affairs of their states.

The fourth General Elections of 1967 ended Congress rule and half of the Indian states came to be governed by various coalitions of non-Congress parties.

After assumption of power, these non-Congress parties came to realise their mendicant status. These coalition governments were thus dislodged one by one on partisan considerations.

The Congress model of governance maltreated the non-Congress Opposition governments, discriminating against them in matters of allocation of financial grants, location of heavy industrial projects and in matters of centrally sponsored schemes for poverty alleviation etc.

The Central Government failed to work for balanced growth of the nation and has been responsible for creating regional imbalances responsible for widening the gap between the rich and the poor. Mounting unemployment coupled with spiralling prices has added to the miseries of the people.

The partisan role of the Planning Commission (which has come to achieve the status of a super Cabinet under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister) and the Finance Commissions have been unsympathetic to the opposition-ruled states. The price and wage policies of the Union Government are responsible for causing a drain of the limited resources of the states. The states have very meagre sources of revenue (approximately 14 items of taxes) that are incapable even for meeting the salary bill of their employees.

The Central Government has been continuously increasing its hold over the finances of the states by resorting to measures like bank nationalisation, imposition of a surcharge on income tax, by acquiring control over the employees provident fund, general provident fund and through centrally sponsored national saving schemes.

Besides, the partisan role of the Governors, misuse of Article 356 for dislodging popularly elected governments, enquiry commissions against Chief Ministers, deployment of para-military forces without the consent of the states, discrimination in matters of allocation of discretionary grants — all have resulted in souring the Centre-State relations.

The power to amend the constitution has been blatantly misused to increase the hold of the Centre over the states. As a result of the draconian 42nd Constitution Amendment, the federal balance was further eroded and some important subjects were transferred to the Concurrent List from the State List.

The theory of “committed judiciary” and the “committed bureaucracy” and the policy of transferring Judges of the High Court smacked of manipulative politics seeking to attack the independence of the judiciary and the autonomous functioning of the bureaucracy in India.

The short-sighted policy of creating linguistic states, resolving of river water and boundary disputes between states in an unfair manner, repressive measures like TADA and MISA during the Emergency imposed in 1975 and the violation of human rights of the people — all these are acts aimed at suppressing the autonomous functioning of the states.

Under the present constitutional set-up, the state governments are at the mercy of the Centre not only for their economic, administrative and legislative requirements, but also for their very existence. The track record of the central governments during the past 50 years (barring the BJP-led coalition governments at the Centre) has been partisan and have been responsible in creating and intesifying bitterness between the Centre and the states.
The pattern of governance set in motion by the Congress party was followed by the 34-month-long rule (1977-79) of the Janata Party. The Janata conglomerate (due to its ideological feud) failed to honour the commitments contained in its election manifesto that it would decentralise powers and would ensure autonomous functioning of the states.

The Janata Dal minority government headed by V.P. Singh (December 2, to November 10, 1990) and later by Chandra Shekhar (Novmber 10, 1990, to June, 21, 1991) could do nothing worthwhile in restoring even the subjects which were transferred to the Concurrent List by Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.

The Sarkaria Commission (in its report on October 27, 1987) retained the status quo so far as the division of powers between the Centre and the states was concerned.

The Commission in its report observed that “it is neither advisable nor necessary to make any drastic changes in the basic character of the Constitution. It has, however, made 247 recommendations to improve the functioning of the Centre-state relations.

The step-motherly treatment meted out to the opposition-ruled states by successive central governments has led to the demand for autonomy by the states. The Akali Dal was indeed the first to raise this demand, during the fifties it demanded that the centre’s jurisdiction should be limited to foreign affairs, defence and communication.

The DMK, after dropping its secessionist ideology in the wake of the enactment of the 16th Constitution Amendment Act in 1963, became the chief spokesman of state autonomy.

The rise of regional parties in various states added a new dimension to this demand. These parties wanted an end to the hegemony of the Union Government and called for restructuring the relations between the Centre and the states with a view to imparting a true federal character to the Constitution.

One can discern the nature and extent of autonomy being demanded from the documents prepared by the non-Congress opposition parties. The Rajamannar Committee report of 1971, the Anandpur Sahib Resolution of 1973, the West Bengal memorandum of 1977, the proceedings of the Regional Council attended by the four southern non-Congress Chief Ministers and proceedings of the 17 Opposition party conclaves — all have made a number of proposals for restructuring the Union-states relations with a view to according greater autonomy to the states.

The Sarkaria Commission of 1987 has made no worthwhile suggestions to impart a genuine federal character to the Constitution. The Amritsar Declaration of 1990 adopted by the Akali Dal (Mann) wants a confederal system which alone would ensure full autonomy to the states.

The political scene has changed radically after the formation of BJP-led NDA government under the leadership of Atal Behari Vajpayee. The BJP-led government has realised the mood and the rising expectations of the people. Enlightened statesmen, academicians and media persons are now fully aware of the present compulsions of having a stable government at the national level.

The regional parties (after giving a fatal blow to the Congress) are now putting pressure on the BJP-led government to grant more powers to the states. The BJP is fully aware of the need for the cooperation of the regional parties not only for remaining in power but also for solving the problems of the people.

All 23 regional parties are equal partners in the BJP-led NDA government. These regional parties have come to realise that a strong India can be built only with their support and cooperation.

The concept of a stronger India can be realised if the states are allowed to become stronger. Nation-building activities by the states will go to strengthen the base of the Indian polity. Only stronger states will be able to build a stronger India.

The tempo of building a stronger India can be initiated by bestowing more powers to the states. The opposition parties are stressing the need for more resources as equal partners with the central government, for creating a stronger India. With the control over only 18 subjects, the USA has achieved the distinction of being a “super power”.

In the USA, the 50 states enjoy full autonomy without interference from the federal government. What harm can happen to India if the Union is empowered to look after only matters of national importance. The collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union (strongly tied to communist ideology) failed to retain its original federal character. Three republics went out of its control and became independent sovereign states by adopting separate Constitutions of their own. The remaining republics have now come to be united under a confederal system that assures full autonomy to the constituent republics.

It is pertinent to mention that a Constitution has to be regarded as a “living document”. The purpose of every Constitution is to be serve the needs of a growing nation. A dynamic Constitution must adjust to the changing needs and requirements of society.

India is not what it was during the 1950s. A lot of changes have occurred in our society, economy and polity. The plural society of India is multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious in character.

In the developing countries of the world, including India, the diverse identities (based on ethnic, religious, linguistic and other primordial loyalties) have come to be mobilised owing to the process of modernisation and political development.

All these diverse identities now want a share in the decision-making process. Because of the capitalist path of development, fruits of economic development have been grabbed by the affluent sections of Indian society. Uneven economic development, regional imbalances and exploitation of the scarce resources to the detriment of regional identities have added to a feeling of deprivation and exploitation among minority groups.

As a consequence of these facts, social culture, religious and regional identities now demand autonomy and the creation of separate homelands. The demand for state autonomy is now being supported by a wide range of political organisations such as the Akali Dal in Punjab, the CPM in West Bengal, the DMK (as also the AIADMK) in Tamil Nadu, the Telugu Desam in Andhra Pradesh, the Assom Gana Parishad in Assam, the Janata Dal in Karnataka and the National Conference in Jammu and Kashmir.

The Bodoland movement, the Jharkhand movement, the Gorkha League Liberation Movement of Darjiling and the separatist movements in Jammu and Kashmir state and in the north-eastern states, as a matter of fact, are the outgrowth of ethno-religious revivalism in our country. Punjab also passed through a militant movement for over a decade on account of the non-acceptance of the long-pending demands of the Akali Dal. The ruling elite often dubbed them as posing a threat to national unity and integrity.

On the other hand, these varied identities have been the victim of deprivation and suffering at the hands of the ruling elite. A way has to be found to pacify these identities. The foundation of a strong nation can be laid only if sub-national ties are accorded a due place by ensuring them a sufficient dose of autonomy.

The con0stitution of the country is to serve the needs of the society. It is not regarded as a “holy book” which ought to be worshipped by everybody. The Constitution is a means and the end is the achievement of the well-being of a growing nation.

A time has come to establish a true federal system which would strengthen the bonds of mutual cooperation, amity and friendship between the Centre and the states. We should learn a lesson from the past experience of a monolith Centre which was responsible for creating fissures among the different regions and regional identities of our plural society, on the one hand, and intensified bitterness among the states and with the Union Government, on the other.

The past policy of divide and rule has to be replaced by laying the foundation of cooperative federalism.

India will be able to regain its past glory as a nation, if we allow due autonomy to the states. The delegation of powers to the people will strengthen the unity and integrity of India.

The Centre, should retain only matters of national importance and the states should be granted maximum powers (with adequate financial autonomy). All provisions which encroach upon the autonomous functioning of the states should be deleted.

(Dalip Singh, The writer is a Professor of Political Science, Punjabi University, Patiala)

Get this magazine (Current Public Administration) free if you purchase our any of the below courses:

Public Administration Online Coaching / Study Kit

<< Go Back to Main Page