In 1949 B.R. Ambedkar presented to the Constituent Assembly his real plans for India’s Constitution, under the label of ‘United States Of India‘. He described a federal set up of independent state governments and a non-parliamentary type Executive at the Centre. The term has resurfaced again. This time as a way of describing a federal India where state governments and regional political parties play a more important role than the central government or national parties.
In a recent article famous columnist Sagarika Ghose says such a scenario might emerge in the upcoming Indian elections. She writes “India’s diverse polity has always needed a wide dispersal of political power to create a truly ‘United States of India’.”
Here are excerpts from Ghose’s article first published in The Times of India…
United States of India: Why a coalition of chief ministers mirrors an increasingly federal India
By Sagarika Ghose
With an eye on impending state elections, Karnataka CM Siddaramaiah recently raised the flag of a south Indian revolt. States south of the Vindhyas have been effectively subsidising the north, he wrote on Facebook. After Chandrababu Naidu-led TDP exited NDA, DMK president MK Stalin declared he would support a “Dravida Nadu” of southern states. In Bengal, Mamata Banerjee repeatedly attacks New Delhi’s imperiousness and Keralites have taken to social media to protest stereotyping the entire state as a “killing field” simply because of age-old political violence between rival party cadres.
With 20 ruling alliance CMs, clearly the opposition feels squeezed and there are moves afoot to create a loose chief ministers’ front. The Centre vs states battle poses a fundamental challenge for the polity: is a strong Centre run by a majority government and a dominant personality cult always in confrontation with the possibility of a looser federation of states in which no single party or individual enjoys overwhelming power? It could be argued coalition governments, although dubbed ‘rickety’ and ‘unstable’, capture India’s plural ethos better than a single party.
The Janata coalition of 1977, and those led by HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral were indeed shaky. Yet the coalition government led by AB Vajpayee and minority government led by PV Narasimha Rao were highly successful. Former RBI governor YV Reddy recently said that coalition governments produce better economic growth than majority ones, pointing out that India saw the highest growth from 1990-2014 during coalitions.
Today PM Modi rules with a massive majority, repeatedly proving his electability. Yet there’s a question over his highly individualistic governance style that seems to be alienating significant sections of the political class. Every NDA ally today appears disillusioned, TDP’s angry estrangement revealing a certain flaw in a decision making structure concentrated overwhelmingly around the prime minister’s office in Delhi.
Modi has talked of cooperative federalism, yet chief ministers complain the Centre sees them as rivals. For example in the PM’s latest Ayushman Bharat scheme, several state governments fear that their own health insurance schemes will be subsumed under this gargantuan central plan and the PM will get all the credit. After all, why should opposition-ruled ruled states like Bengal and Karnataka accept Delhi’s writ if they aren’t given the political space to implement their own programmes?
Also, when a powerful ruling party speaks of a ‘Congress mukt Bharat’ the opposition begins to fear not just defeat but elimination. In this sense BJP’s the new Congress which in the 70s similarly sought to politically crush not only its rivals but federalism itself with disastrous results in Punjab and J&K.
By contrast, the GST negotiations show what can be achieved if there’s give and take between Centre and states. Here the Centre reassured states of being equal stake holders, the reason why no state, despite serious misgivings, has so far walked out of the GST edifice. Can India’s politics resemble the cooperative federalism of a GST-like council in 2019 with a balance of power between federal government and states?
BR Ambedkar designed India’s Constitution as more federal than unitary. “India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States,” declares Article 1. Today more than ever before, India lives in its states and not in Delhi, it’s an era of robust and powerful CMs. That’s why the shifting contours of politics, where Mamata Banerjee and K Chandrashekhar Rao are sharing their alternative chai pe charcha or a Sharad Pawar and Chandrababu Naidu are weighing their options or a loose regional or federal front is taking shape, are not as misconceived as they may initially appear. Of course any coalition of CMs can’t revolve simply around a ‘Modi mukt Centre’ agenda but must become a template for ensuring equitable share in resources and a greater say for states in decision making.
A federal front mirrors Indian realities in which power doesn’t flow from the top but where decision making’s genuinely federalised. In fact, in many ways coalition governments are perhaps the only remaining institutional check on democratic authoritarianism and over centralisation. India’s diverse polity has always needed a wide dispersal of political power to create a truly ‘United States of India’.
This article was first published on The Times of India on 28 March 2018.