Is India's federalism facing needless stress tests?

In the face of a strong government in New Delhi, some states are growing assertive. This is not ideal

NEW DELHI, INDIA - January 26, 2017: The India Republic Day Parade 2017, on Rajpath, New Delhi.

( Christopher Pike for Crown Prince Court - Abu Dhabi )
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Given its size and complexity, the Indian republic’s longevity has been underpinned by a number of factors, none more important than its federal design. It has a strong centre in New Delhi, with significant powers apportioned to its 28 states, most of which have been created along cultural and linguistic lines. A balance of power has ensured centre-state harmony and, in turn, a robust union.

Lately, however, centre-state relations have been less than harmonious.

This isn’t unusual or unprecedented. When one political party dominates the central legislature in a parliamentary democracy such as India’s, the executive tends to become all-conquering – particularly when it is headed by a charismatic figure. National electoral successes for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014 and 2019 have given their leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the kind of untrammelled power not accorded to a chief executive since Indira Gandhi and her Congress party ran the country in the 1970s.

In the face of a weak opposition at the centre, many state governments are becoming increasingly assertive. Ordinarily, this assertiveness serves as a necessary counterbalance in a country as diverse as India’s – particularly as the BJP is a deeply ideological party, with its emphasis on Hindu cultural prominence distinct from the nation’s secular and civic nationalist ethos. However, moves of the kinds made by some states in recent weeks will only weaken the foundations that have, for almost 75 years of India’s post-colonial history, kept the union together.

To understand why India’s states are feeling insecure, a recent development in Delhi is instructive.

One of India’s largest urban agglomerations, Delhi is, administratively speaking, a quasi-state. This means that its government – which does not cover the National Capital Territory of New Delhi – has more powers than those running other cities (such as Mumbai), but has less oversight than those running other states (such as Kerala). Until recently, the Delhi state government could decide on all matters – to the extent that state governments can – except regarding land, police and public order. Those come under the purview of the national government’s Home Ministry.

This arrangement was significantly altered last month, when a law passed in Parliament made it mandatory for the Delhi state government to seek approvals from the lieutenant governor – the constitutional head of the city-state who is appointed by the aforementioned Home Ministry – before any action it takes.

FILE PHOTO: India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a gathering before flagging off the "Dandi March", or Salt March, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of India's Independence, in Ahmedabad, India, March 12, 2021. REUTERS/Amit Dave/File Photo
Narendra Modi is one of the most powerful prime ministers in India's history. Reuters

Critics view this law as a political tool with which to curtail the powers of Delhi’s popular government, run by the up-and-coming Aam Aadmi Party, thereby making it near-impossible for it to keep its electoral promises. This ploy, critics say, is meant to help the BJP make a case for itself during the next state election in 2025. BJP leaders insist the law is aimed at improving administrative efficiency and ending the perennial confusion over who runs the city.

Cynical ploy or not, the move nonetheless amounts to scaling back a state government’s powers and undermining the people’s vote. In Delhi, the buck will no longer stop with the elected chief minister but with the unelected lieutenant governor.

The capital’s voters are not the only ones feeling vulnerable. The territories of Puducherry, Jammu-Kashmir and Ladakh have all been brought under the centre’s thumb in recent times, under different pretexts. That a united Jammu and Kashmir was, until August 2019, an autonomous entity with special rights – leave alone a state – has alarmed democracy activists, federalists and even large portions of the electorate living in states with distinct cultures and identities.

Some state governments have struck out.

epa07540482 Aam Aadmi Party chief and Delhi Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal (C), gestures during an election campaign road show in New Delhi, India, 01 May 2019. Voting for the Parliamentary elections in Delhi will be held in a single phase on 12 May 2019. The parliamentary elections, which began on 11 April 2019, are to be conducted in seven phases throughout India and result will be announced on 23 May.  EPA/STR
Aam Aadmi Party chief and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has essentially been stripped of his executive powers. EPA

Last month, the Haryana legislature passed a law directing employers to reserve 75 per cent of jobs that pay a gross monthly salary of up to 50,000 rupees (almost $700) for locals. The law, meant to assuage the state’s large but increasingly disenfranchised Jat population, is problematic. For one, reservations are almost certain to drive jobs out of the state. Moreover, the provisions allowing employers to apply for exemptions will only increase red tape and corruption.

But the law’s worst possible outcome is that it could fan the flames of nativism. It is one thing for a country to restrict the inflow of migrants from other countries, it is entirely another for states to do so vis-a-vis migrants from other states within the same union.

The law will almost certainly be challenged in court. However, the fact several other states – including those being run by the BJP – are considering similar legislation points to a distressing trend. For all of Mr Modi’s successes over the years in unifying the country’s myriad vote banks by appealing to their economic aspirations, the issue of identity cannot easily be done away with. Like the Jats of Haryana, many groups across the country are beginning to reassert themselves – and with all politics being local, states are taking steps that are not only retrograde but perhaps even unconstitutional.

Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Rakesh Tikait (C) watches Nihang Sikh warriors performing on the occasion of ‘Hola Mohalla’ festival that takes place on the day following Holi, the festival of colours in a ground along a blocked highway where farmers are continuing their protest against the central government's recent agricultural reforms at the Delhi-Haryana state border in Singhu on March 29, 2021.  / AFP / Sajjad HUSSAIN
Jat leader Rakesh Tikait, centre, is one of the leaders at the forefront of the farmers' agitation against the Indian government. Jats have felt increasingly disenfranchised in recent years. AFP

In one case, overzealous legislation could even threaten national security.

The Bihar legislature recently passed a law handing extra-constitutional powers to its military police. Seen by critics as a political tool to arrest and jail opposition leaders without warrants or judicial oversight, the law essentially allows the police to act with impunity so long as it can justify that it is protecting the interests of the state. Fears it could even engage in a crossfire with armed police of other states are not unwarranted. Just last year, India's Home Ministry sent its Border Security Force to secure the disputed areas along the border between the states of Assam and Mizoram. This followed days-long violent clashes, the Mizoram police’s alleged occupation of some areas and the Assam government’s imposition of an economic boycott.

Such developments prompt unwelcome echoes of the past, when large swathes of India’s territory were ridden with violent separatist movements. Since the 1980s though, successive Indian governments, including Mr Modi’s, have integrated the country politically through peaceful means. And since liberalising its economy in 1991, the country has moved towards fiscal and economic integration that culminated, five years ago, in the Modi government’s introduction of the pan-Indian Goods and Services Tax regime.

In May 2016, the Lok Sabha passed the Constitution Amendment Bill, paving way for the Goods and Services Tax – or GST. AFP
In May 2016, the Lok Sabha passed the Constitution Amendment Bill, paving way for the Goods and Services Tax – or GST. AFP

India, it is said, is an accidental nation, for it is a continental-size country with a multitude of identities. Be that as it may, it has taken plenty of work to keep the union intact for over seven decades. Whether it is the centre impinging on state rights, or states reserving jobs for locals and giving unbridled powers to their police, such steps undermine that good work. They might even unleash the centrifugal forces that, upon gaining momentum, pull the union apart.

As it is, the country wrestles with other challenges: a creeping majoritarianism and a corresponding rise in insecurity among religious minorities; a relentless crackdown on civil liberties; and, more recently, attempts by regulators to police the internet. It can do without a discord within the state.

In the spirit of co-operative federalism, a feature Mr Modi himself has often touted, it is time for the centre and the states to come together and nip their tensions in the bud.

Chitrabhanu Kadalayil is an assistant comment editor at The National