Mamata Banerjee was her usual feisty self in her recent interactions in Mumbai with members of civil society. But there were those loaded silences too when the raw and untrained enthusiasm of the likes of actors Swara Bhaskar and Richa Chadda demanded she declare herself PM candidate, repeal the ‘draconian’ UAPA Act and keep a distance from Ambani-Adani.
Her declared objective for her nation-wide tours is to build a broad alliance to defeat the BJP. But two other points in her agenda stood out more sharply. Her attacks on the Congress — statements such as ‘What do you do when they refuse to fight the BJP’ or ‘Where is the UPA?’ — had the votaries of Opposition unity squirming. Second, didi has made it clear her anti-BJP plank will rest on the unity of regional parties in the coming round of state and national elections.
Defence of India’s quasi-federalism is a great plan for Opposition unity. Never have there been so many state governments run by avowed or tacit regional formations; and never have they felt so threatened by the centralizing, steam-roller treatment of the central government.
Of India’s 31 states and union territories, more than half — 17 to be precise — are today ruled by regional parties or regional parties in alliance with a national party. Over time, many of these parties have learnt by hard experience that the BJP does not look at its regional allies for the long-term.
States’ autonomy in tatters
The fact that the Shiv Sena has preferred to ally with the NCP and the Congress in Maharashtra; or tacit allies like KCR in Telengana or the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab have crossed over to the Opposition are examples of the failure of the BJP to allow regional formations to have their own space. Some like Nitish Kumar in Bihar continue with the BJP, but are nursing a hurt and looking to break free.
Regional autonomy and ‘diversity is not in the Sangh Parivar’s scheme of things. Their objective is to create a centralized ‘Akhand Bharat’ that stretches from Afghanistan and Pakistan in the West to Myanmar in the East, and includes Sri Lanka in the South. This is quite antipathic to the India’s quasi-federal constitutional structure that gives the Union government primacy in most areas; but also allows the states to chalk out their own path in areas such as agriculture, education, health, police and local self-government.
Recent decisions by the Union government have only buttressed the belief that the Modi government is on a mission to force a unitary form of government. The August 2019 abrogation of Article 370, that gave Jammu & Kashmir a unique autonomous status, forced without even a fig leaf of discussion with local political parties, was the first big warning signal.
More recently, in July this year, the creation of a ministry of cooperation at the Centre under the guardianship of home minister Amit Shah, created serious concern among state governments. Cooperatives, a state subject, have large economic clout and have been always been associated with local power lobbies. Cooperative sugar mills produce nearly 35% of the country’s sugar output. As many as 150 MLAs from Maharashtra, an important cooperative state, are big shareholders or office bearers in these cooperative societies and are worried their wings will be clipped.
Similarly, the 3 farm laws, now repealed, were introduced and passed in September last year without any reference to the states. Finally it is in the growing fiscal control over the states that has made it clear that cooperative federalism is good as dead. The Centre with great fanfare accepted the 14th Finance Commission recommendation to enhance the states’ share in the divisible pool of taxes from 32% to 42%, but in actual practice real supply to the states never exceeded 32-34%.
Thereafter, in July 2017, GST was ushered in promising fiscal autonomy to the states through a seamless division of tax monies between the Centre and states. However, there have always been a shortfall in collections as disinvestment targets have fallen through. The pandemic brought out the stark reality. Though the Centre was committed to make up the shortfall to the states, it broke its sovereign guarantee and borrowed and onward lent `1.1 lakh crore to states.
Returning to Mamata Banerjee and her strategy for opposition unity, what do we make of the balance of forces? Regional parties and formations who are in power in the states will be important allies to raise the issue of erosion of federal autonomy. But can the national opposition be the sum of regional parties? History has shown regional formations are intrinsically opportunistic and can turn any time. Moreover, can the largest national opposition party, which rules in 3-4 states — the Congress — be reduced to a rump of Mamata Banerjee?
Didi has it right that the Congress does not have the fight to take on the BJP on the ground. But can she replace the Congress as the lead Opposition figure? A few defections from the Congress in some states to the Trinamool cannot hide the fact that Mamata is still a Bengal player. The Opposition parties will have to build on more solid foundations if the BJP is to be stopped from walking away with the 2024 elections.