States & the Union

Disrespecting states reverses crucial gains made over the years in deepening democracy. Centre must pause and review

The Centre blames it all on the states — and even as it corrects its own course, it targets the states. Didn’t states ask for control over vaccine procurement? Yes, some states did. But some states also asked for the farm laws to be rolled back, so? This course of political discourse is a slippery one and this was the unfortunate message sent out by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address which announced a very welcome reversal of the vaccine policy to one in which the Centre takes full responsibility for supplying vaccines to states. The attempt to paint the states as culprit was not born of one-off one-upmanship. In fact, it underlined a deepening pattern of antagonism, Centre vs states. Especially since the BJP failed to win West Bengal after a hard-fought battle with the TMC, the figure of a domineering Centre — out to take on the state or put it down or pass the buck to it — has become a familiar sight. From sending Central teams to probe the post-poll political violence in Bengal to accusing Opposition finance ministers of playing politics in the GST Council, from weaponising agencies to unleashing the party’s IT army to ridicule state leaders, the Centre looks ill-tempered and controlling, and worse, disrespectful of the state.

The past is no shining light when it comes to state rights. Yet, a long distance has been travelled from Kerala, July 1959, when the Centre, under Prime Minister Nehru, dismissed an elected non-Congress state government. The wanton use of Article 356 during the Indira Gandhi years was checked in times to come — by the emergence of assertive regional parties in the 1980s and the onset of coalition governments at the Centre in the 1990s. The Justice Sarkaria Commission on Centre-state relations was set up in 1983, the Bommai judgment came in 1994. These ensured that even though there were pendulum swings, the Centre had to be more mindful of the needs of the states, more careful of treading into their domain. The federal balance of power has been shaped, over decades, by the constitutional letter and spirit, by significant political transitions, by important judicial interventions. Ironically enough, in this story of deepening democracy, the BJP first made its mark by raising its voice for greater powers to the states — be it protesting against the misuse of Article 356 or, more recently, against the centralisation of funding through centrally sponsored schemes. As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi was consistently articulate on the federal skew; as PM, he promised “cooperative federalism”. That promise is not being kept.

A new round of assembly elections is due early next year. That could renew hostilities between the Centre and states. This is not the way it should be, it would also be undermining the gains made so far in institutionalising the federal idea. The pandemic has underlined the necessity of more engagement, across state borders and levels of government. To say, as the BJP mandarins underline, that states need to do their bit too, is axiomatic. But it’s the Centre that must review its approach, lest this teaching moment is frittered away. For, the Union is always bigger than the sum of its parts.

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