Tuesday, August 15, 2017

India's Federal Challenge

Noah Feldman, in Bloomberg, wrote this week that India Proved that Madison Was Right About Federalism.  In this he writes :
"..the Indian framers chose federalism because they were looking for a system that seemed to allow their people to have a say in local government while simultaneously stopping the potentially fractious provinces from pulling apart. In other words, they picked federalism from the menu of constitutional options because they thought it fit their needs and circumstances.Today, federalism seems like such a natural phenomenon that it’s easy to forget it had a moment of invention. That invention involved both theoretical analysis and practical compromise."
Reading a bit of US Constitutional history, one learns that: 
"In their attempt to balance order with liberty, the Founders identified several reasons for creating a federalist government:
  • to avoid tyranny
  • to allow more participation in politics
  • to use the states as "laboratories" for new ideas and programs."
If we go back to read what India's constitution framers, we find that
"The Constitution of India which finally emerged is not Federal in its classic sense but it did contain all the important federal features.  As expressed by Dr. B.R Ambedkar, “it is unitary in extra-ordinary circumstances such as war and other calamities and federal under normal circumstances”.  An agreement was made in the Constituent Assembly, refusing to accept India as a federation of states, while challenging the motion, Ambedkar wanted to expose the logical weaknesses and practical difficulties of imitating the classical federation like the US by saying that:…though India was to be a federation, the federation was not the result of an agreement by the States to join in a federation, and that the federation not being the result of an agreement, no State has the right to secede from it. The Federation is a Union because it is indestructible. Though the country and the people may be divided into different States for convenience of administration, the country is one integral whole, its people a single people living under a single imperium derived from a single source. The Americans had to wage a civil war to establish that the States have no right of secession and that their federation was indestructible. The Drafting Committee thought that it was better to make it clear at the outset rather than to leave it to speculation or to disputes."

Narendra Modi, has often talked about both competitive and cooperative federalism in his tenure as Prime Minister, including today in his Independence Day Speech. The recently introduced Goods & Service Tax (GST) is perhaps one of the finest examples of cooperative federalism,

Over the years, India's public imagination and thereby media attention has overwhelmingly been occupied by the politics of New Delhi. While this pre-occupation with Delhi centric politics is mainly about the Union Government, it often manifests itself rather amusingly with the amount of disproportionate attention that even the politics of the National Capital Region, Delhi gets when compared to what happens in other states. "Tyranny of Distance" has been glibly used by people to explain away, why the North East of the country gets such little attention and coverage 

India's states have exclusive powers on law and order within their jurisdictions and very important powers with respect to health and education. But unfortunately, instead of states being showcased or highlighted for being labs of new ideas and concepts, they rarely get attention apart from the time of elections, or major calamities such as floods or other bad news events such as riots. Public attention is rarely focused on the work of state governments. This needs an urgent correction, as there can be no better, positive, incentive for politicians and bureaucrats at the state level to improve their performance than a constant scrutiny at a nation wide level.

India's federal experiment also faces a number of challenges. We have had nearly 65 years of Centralised Planning for a start, not exactly a great model for federalism to begin with. There are unresolved issues of statehood demands that keep coming up from time to time, Gorkhaland being the most relevant example at the present moment. There are often ham handed efforts by the Centre to spread the use of Hindi, which are then met by backlash in the states, leaving a bad taste in the mouth for most ordinary people. The North-South divide is constantly played up in various forums - from the academic and the journalistic forums in the tendentious discussions around the Aryan Invasion Theory to the recent economic theorizing on disparity between states on tax contributions and returns. Add, to that the general bogey of BJP's hegemony being created by an alarmist liberal media, and what we are likely to see is a more adversarial relationship than required between the Centre and certain states. 

As the Indian experiment continues its journey into the 71st year, the country desperately needs high performing state governments, especially in states in the Hindi heartland. And so, by a quirk of fate, one hopes that the two new governments there, who are now bound to get attention for controversial reasons, are both tracked closely and also perform much better than previous administrations. 

At the same time, it needs a Center which appears to be restrained and judicious and seen to give the states their dues, especially in an environment where the nation's adversaries are determined to keep playing up India's many fault lines. 

India's federal polity needs a lot more focus and attention on states and other local governments. Here's hoping we shall have that soon enough. 

1 comment:

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