Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 2, January 24, 2009
Dynamics of Indian Federalism
Monday 26 January 2009, by ,
Federalism in India: A Quest for New Identity by Dr Sarita; Regal Publication, New Delhi; 2009.
On account of the powerful impact of the trauma of partition and euphoria of indepen-dence, the makers of the Indian Constitution virtually glossed over the multi-national character of our polity and decided to set up such a highly centralised federal system that the scholars on federalism questioned its very claim of being a federal system. So much so that a well-known expert on federalism, K.C. Wheare, had to observe that India is a unitary state with federal principles rather than a federal state with subsidiary unitary features.
But the logic of one-party dominance of the Congress—created by its historic role in the national movement, the charisma of its leader Jawaharlal Nehru, the umbrella character of the party, its Centrist approach, its consensual style of decision-making and the consequent success in forming governments both at the Centre and in the States—culminated in the emergence of cooperative federalism with bargaining as its key note. The main credit for the rise of this type of federal system also legitimately goes to the democratic and decentralised leadership style of the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, who held this office from 1947 to 1964.
However, the decline of the dominance of the Congress in 1967 and the formation of non-Congress coalition governments in many States after the fourth general elections exposed the artificial and unnatural character of Indian federalism. This explains the rise of Centre-State tensions. The demand for greater autonomy to States, the plea for the abolition of Article 356 (which was blatantly misused for toppling the non-Congress governments), and the demand for changing the mode of appointment of the Governor and for checking its highly partisan role have to seen in this perspective.
The restoration of the Congress dominance in the 1971 parliamentary elections—due to the disenchantment of the people with the politics of defections and the mal-performance of the non-Congress coalition governments in the States on the one hand, and the use of politics of populism by Indira Gandhi on the other hand—once again pushed the demand for federalisation and changes in the Centre-State relations into the backburner. However, the excessive centralisation and personalisation of power by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi led to a strong reaction from the grassroots and culminated in bringing the Janata Party to power. During its rule (1977-79), the Indian polity got federalised without structural changes due to the federal character of the Janata Party.
But the failure of the Janata experiment and the politics of split both in the Janata Party and the Congress and the political instability at the Centre and in the States enabled the Congress fraction headed by Indira Gandhi, the Congress-I, to acquire dominance. This once again de-federalised the Indian polity as the character of the Congress-I Government was marked by centralisation and personalisation of authority. However, the natural reaction against it once again brought the federal agenda to the fore. This is evident from the consensus amongst the Opposition parties, both national and regional, except the BJP, on the issue of greater autonomy of the States. The appointment of the Sarkaria Commission on Centre-State Relations in 1983 has to be seen in this perspective. It is a different matter that its report did not lead to the restructuring of Indian federalism.
HOWEVER, Rajiv Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, did try to introduce the element of localisation in Indian federalism through the 64th and 65th Amendment Bills in 1989. These aimed at adding the third tier to Indian federalism by constitutionalising Panchayati Raj Institutions and the urban local bodies. However, he did not succeed as his initiatives were perceived as a disguised attempt for further de-federalisation by containing the already limited autonomy of the States. Consequently his agenda for addition of the dimension of localisation remained un-implemented.
In the meantime the element of globalisation was introduced in Indian federalism as a sequel to the adoption of the New Economic Policy in 1991 during the regime of the P.V. Narasimha Rao-led Congress-I Government. With this began the process of Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation. But simultaneously, Narasimha Rao was able to implement the agenda of Rajiv Gandhi for localisation in Indian federalism. Consequently the 73rd and the 74th Constitutional Amendments were enacted in 1992, implemented in 1993 and operationalised in 1994.
The 73rd Amendment has constitutioned Panchayati Raj Institutions, made these inclusive through the provision for one-third reservation for women and the reservation for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in proportion to their share in the population and to turn these into instruments for making and implementing plans for economic development and social justice pertaining to the list of 29 items in the Eleventh Schedule the powers from which were to be devolved on these by the State Legislatures. The 74th Amendment provided for the same structure, same character and same role for the urban local bodies which were to be devolved the powers given to the 18 items listed in the Twelfth Schedule.
The above phenomenon has been aptly analysed by the author in this study being reviewed here. But in addition to it, this young scholar from the Department of Gandhian Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh, has also argued that Centre-State relations be recast in order to create a more equipoised and cooperative federal polity in consonance with our socio-cultural pluralism. According to her, this is essential for the sake of harmony between the federal polity and society. But with due regard to her scholarship and painstaking research, we have no hesitation in concluding that she could not capture the dynamics and dialectical relationship between various classes at the local, regional, national and international levels owing to her failure in using the political economy approach. Nonetheless, the elegant volume that she has produced merits attention of all those who feel concerned about the federal nation-building in India and consider it necessary for maintaining its unity and integrity on the one hand, and for safeguarding its democratic and secular character on the other.
The reviewers, Prof Ranbir Singh and Ms Vimlesh Rathore, are on the faculty of the Haryana Institute of Rural Development, Nilokheri, Karnal.