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Federal debt


Almost every recent high-profile spat between a chief minister and the Centre has a lot to do with jurisdictional conflicts between the Union and the states, and shows a clear need to promote collaborative federalism in India. All it now requires is political will.

The formation of the Indian union in the first decade after Independence was largely a product of decentralisation within a highly centralised political system. It was very different from, say, the US, where previously sovereign states joined hands to form a union. This contrast explains why the Centre is more powerful in India. The first four decades of the Indian federation were also marked by a high degree of political centralisation on account of one party (the Congress) dominating governments at the Centre and the states.

Two major factors now impel great change in the status quo. One, the rise of regional parties in the context of coalitional governments has produced a situation in which the Union government can no longer ignore state governments on important questions in Centre-state relations and implementation of joint programmes and policies.

Two, neoliberal economic reforms since 1991 have also been a major factor in transforming the political economy of federalism - by forcing governments across India to accommodate market forces and civil society institutions in the process of economic management and planning.

These transformations are clearly responsible for new contours in Centre-state relations evident in recent controversies surrounding issues of governance and even foreign relations.

This assumes greater significance within the framework of the federal division of powers in the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution - through the Union, state and concurrent lists. The three lists are so closely intertwined in theory as well as in practice that unilateral action by any one order of the government is impracticable. Even exclusive jurisdictions of two levels of governments are difficult to neatly separate in practice. For example, agriculture is an exclusive state subject. Yet when the Union government signed the WTO treaty, at least four state governments filed original suits before the Supreme Court saying that they were not consulted before formalising the treaty.

Similarly, law and order, though originally an exclusive state subject, does not really remain so after the 42nd Amendment Act made the deployment of paramilitary and military forces in a state (in aid of civil order) a Union subject.

As regional political satraps have acquired a great deal of leverage at the Centre, some constitutional principles have been stretched beyond recognition. Cabinet collegiality and cohesion, collective responsibility of the council of ministers to Parliament, and the prime minister's preeminent role in policymaking have all changed. Some analysts have even gone to the extent of saying that while the constitution of India may be 'quasi-federal', the government of India is 'quasi-confederal' in practice.

Two recent conferences of chief ministers leave much to be desired in terms of the way they were forced by non-Congress chief ministers on the Union government.

But in these cases the proper course of action for the Centre would have been to first create a broad consensus. In fact, this should be a regular procedure through institutionalised channels like the Inter State Council (' ISC', created under Article 263 of the constitution) and the National Development Council (' NDC', created by the Jawaharlal Nehru government way back in 1952). These two intergovernmental forums are examples of 'executive federalism' - in the sense that they bring together the executive heads of the two orders of governments, namely the prime minister (with key Union ministers) and chief ministers. But they appear to have become ineffective and reduced to merely existing as debating forums today.

Indeed, the landmark Sarkaria Commission on Centre-state relations recommended back in the 1980s that like the ISC, the NDC too should be made a constitutional body. Other major commissions have also reiterated the importance of activating and empowering these intergovernmental forums and making them institutionalised mechanisms of Union-state consultation and decision-making in matters of domestic as well as foreign policy.

Our two orders of government (Centre and state) so far have been largely acting out their scripts more or less unilaterally, with perfunctory consultations, if at all. The problem has been magnified by a veritable chessboard of divided coalition governments that have functioned in New Delhi over the last two decades. Different political compulsions in states have also added to this mess.

But there is a clear federal imperative, and in the post-1989 political scenario, the Centre must look to 'federalise' its mode of dealing with the states. The sooner the better.

The writer teaches at the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi

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