Federalism as a constitutional imperative

Federalism is not antithetical to national integration. On the contrary, it is a necessary concomitant to the latter.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip sinha)

The very first article in the Constitution of India carries a great political philosophy. It says: “India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States.” This amalgamation of the states carries the grandeur of federalism. Federalism is not merely a device for the division of power. It encompasses inclusiveness, tolerance, understanding and recognition of the country’s diversity. Federalism is not antithetical to national integration. On the contrary, it is a necessary concomitant to the latter.

The governments must function independent of the political parties that run them. Having chosen to form a government, the political combination that runs it will be bound by the constitutional prescriptions. If the government identifies with a political ideology, it is the idea of constitutional governance that fails. Unfortunately, this is often the Indian case. As scholar Tarunabh Khaitan observes, there is a kind of fusion between the regime at the Centre and the ruling political party. This, in turn, could also prompt the Centre to treat the states differently.

Differential treatment of the states can happen in varied ways. The states might get discriminated against in budgetary allocation, extension of aids and reliefs, support for the smooth functioning of the government, etc. The use or abuse of the gubernatorial offices and the selective misuse of the Centre’s probe agencies against those in power in the states also might reflect political agenda.

There are reports indicating that a great share of the aid from the Union government went to BJP-ruled states whereas the other states were left with lesser funds. This has given rise to grievances not only from the state governments but also from policymakers.

There is substance in the criticism by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin, who said that the last Union budget was mainly meant for development projects in BJP-ruled states. The chief ministers of West Bengal, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh were critical of the Union budget, for it ignored the legitimate demands of their states. The Delhi government’s criticism of the Centre’s ordinance—which takes away the state government’s jurisdiction over state services—continues to be a serious issue.

Already there is growing concern over the Centre’s exploitation of the South, leading to inequitable distribution of resources favouring the North. Nilakantan R S explains various facets of the South-North divide in his brilliant work, South vs North: India’s Great Divide. This reveals a geographical disparity in almost all walks of life in the country, which is deeply disturbing.

What about the state’s power to avail loans? Kerala finance minister K N Balagopal, in a letter written to Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, complained that the Ministry of Finance arbitrarily made a reduction of about `4,000 crore in the net borrowing limits of the state. He posed serious constitutional issues based on Article 293(3) of the Constitution. According to this provision, the state should get the Union’s consent for raising any loan if there is any outstanding balance. This does not, however, empower the Union to arbitrarily meddle with the state government’s financial plans which include various welfare schemes for the poor. His criticism was that the Centre was arbitrarily invoking Article 293(3) to control the state’s autonomy in the matter of borrowing.

The most crucial change in the realm of taxation also favoured the Centre. The 101st Amendment to the Constitution, which designed the Goods and Services Tax—replacing inter alia the then existing state tax—had a centralising effect, as Christophe Jaffrelot opined. It adversely impacted the relative financial autonomy of the states in multiple ways. They struggled to have their voices heard in the GST Council and get their claims for due share accepted. Economic centralisation is clearly a tool for political centralisation.

The Centre’s differential treatment of the states need not be always based on the political coalition that runs the state. More strikingly, even during the times of human tragedy, the partisan approach has been evident. Take for example the way in which the Centre treated Gujarat in turbulent times as opposed to its approach towards the recent Manipur crisis. True, in the former case, it was Cyclone Biparoy, a natural calamity. In the latter, it was man-made bloodshed. But in both, there was immense human suffering. The Union government can be proud that there were no loss of lives despite the cyclone’s terrible speed of 140 kmph. It carried out intense and effective rehabilitation measures. According to the home minister, about 1,08,208 civilians were moved to safety, 760 babies were delivered under medical care, and 73,000 animals were taken to safer locations.

Let us now come to the tragedy in Manipur. Unlike Gujarat, Manipur is a small state with an area of 22,327 sq km and a population of only 32 lakh. Throughout the horrific clash between the majority Meiteis and the minority Kukis in the state, the Centre has practically remained a mute spectator. Hundreds lost their lives and properties worth crores were damaged. The neglect of the issues in Manipur implies politicisation of the institutions of governance.

The Centre’s apathy towards Manipur was in total contrast to its commendable vigilance in Gujarat. There was no timely effort to douse the man-made fire in Manipur. The state experienced a situation of lawlessness. During troubled times, a responsible government must see the people as a whole, without making a majority-minority distinction. The government’s paramount duty is to ensure the peaceful co-existence of various communities by preserving the Rule of Law.

The Gujarat-Manipur contrast is not an accidental irony. In a way, it shows the deeper wounds inflicted upon the nation’s polity. Indian federalism faces multiple and complex challenges, all of which are extremely serious. During the 2024 Lok Sabha election, these federalist concerns may take centre stage in India’s political discourse. Every citizen is entitled to the fruits of constitutional governance, which if denied, would amount to placing party politics above the country. No democracy can afford it.

Kaleeswaram Raj

Lawyer, Supreme Court of India

(Tweets @KaleeswaramR)

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