Indian People Want Genuine Federalismbook cover

By Bhanu Dhamija (This article was first published at on Nov 28, 2015.)

The populace wants state governments with local politicians they can hold accountable

First in Delhi and now in Bihar, the recent election results prove that people want local accountability.  They prefer a local face, even one only mildly credible, to a national celebrity.  They want their state government to focus on local issues.  National trends, no matter how inflammatory, are of much less significance to them.  When they see hope of a responsible and independent state government, people are willing to rise above caste or communal considerations. Just see how Nitish Kumar, whose caste has only 4% of the vote, won so big.  Above all, people want genuine federalism.

These Bihar results go against conventional political punditry.  Because the Indian voter is changing.  She is younger; her online presence is typically just one name; caste or religion is of little importance, and campaigning doesn’t fool her.  In Bihar, the BJP or Modi made the mistake of applying old tactics.  But those tactics no longer work.  The common man today may not be able to see or articulate that what he wants is local accountability, but this commonsense conclusion leads him that way.

It was a shame that Bihar elections became a referendum on the Modi government at the Center.   This went against federalism’s most fundamental principle: that state governments are elected for local governance.  Involving national politics in state elections serves no one.  The local issues are lost, while nationwide governance suffers. Even worse, the state’s electorate gets shortchanged.  Since local issues don’t come into focus, people don’t know with any precision what promises were made.  And since national politicians come and go during the campaign, people don’t know who to hold accountable.  This beats the entire purpose of a federal structure.

The problem is that India’s voter has never seen true federalism.  The country’s federalism is in name only.  Its state governments are not truly independent.  The Center can dissolve them at will by imposing President’s Rule.  The practice began early, in Punjab in 1951. During Indira Gandhi’s insecure years (1967-1973), President’s Rule was imposed 22 times.  Of the 57 instances of President’s Rule from 1951 to 1987 studied by the Sarkaria Commission, “nearly 50% had resulted from central government wishes.”

State governments are also not self sufficient.  They have always been dependent on the Center for funds.  The institutions set up for managing financial relations – the Finance Commission and the Planning Commission – both became heavily biased in favor of the Centre.  The reason was simple: members of both were appointed by the central government.  The Planning Commission’s recent reincarnation into Niti Ayog still puts the central government in charge. Indians have always been told that they need a “strong” central government. So without thinking they root for forceful and extreme centralization of power.

All this does is make India’s regionalism more intolerant, and governance worse.  Nearly all regionalism is based on lingual or communal grounds.  It cannot be wished away.  People’s affinity with their language or religion is harmless.  It gives them a practical way to live as a community and a sense of identity to be proud of.  “Federalism is normally a necessary condition for the protection of territorially specific diversities,” writes Ashutosh Varshney, a Professor of International Studies and Social Sciences at America’s Brown University.  “Having two or more political identities is not subversive to the nation. One can be a Bengali and an Indian,” he says.  Gandhi recognized this a century ago. “As the basis of my pride as an Indian,” he wrote in 1909, “I must have pride in myself as a Gujarati.  Otherwise, we shall be left without any moorings.”

India’s pseudo federalism has caused many secessionist and separatist movements, and allowed insurgencies to fester.  As a result, “more lives have been lost due to internal insecurity than in the five wars India has fought since independence in 1947,” reported Ashok Mehta, a retired major general of the Indian Army, in 2010. In the meanwhile India’s people hunger for true federalism.  When in 2012 the central government announced the formation of another policing authority, National Counter Terrorism Center, without consulting state governments, there would be uproar.  “The country could not prosper unless it adopted a genuine federal system,” Punjab Chief Minister, Parkash Singh Badal, declared in his State Assembly.  The Constitution was framed keeping this in mind, he said, but “federalism had not been adopted.” He appealed that the House pass a resolution demanding the setting up of a new Constituent Assembly to rewrite the Constitution along “genuinely federal lines.”

We can learn a tremendous amount about federalism from the United States, the country where it was invented.  In 1787, America’s founders realized that for good governance, it was necessary to have local governments. This core requirement made a series of decisions necessary, which, all put together, made for an entirely new form of government.  For local governments to be successful, the founders understood that it was essential that they had a degree of sovereignty.  To sustain a system of many sovereign governments, it was necessary that there be a strong national government.  And for the national government to be strong, a single, nationally elected leader was required.  And finally, for this strong yet balanced government to be safe, the Americans understood the necessity of the separation of powers.

The careful coming together of all these requirements mothered the invention of America’s presidential system. The Bihar election results are only the most recent cry for such a system in India.  The sooner our politicians realize the practicality of a genuine federal setup, the sooner they will stop using caste or religion to gain votes.  An American type system doesn’t allow such tactics to succeed.  Its separation of powers, nationwide direct elections, frequent electoral checks, etc. work together to deliver better governance.

(Bhanu Dhamija is Founder of Divya Himachal newspaper & Author of Why India Needs the Presidential System. This article is based on his book.)

Follow the author on twitter @BhanuDhamija