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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 43, New Delhi, October 9, 2021

Fault Lines in Indian Federal Union | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Friday 8 October 2021, by M R Narayan Swamy


India – A Federal Union of States:
Fault Lines, Challenges and Opportunities

Madhav Godbole


Pages: 358; Price: Rs 800

ISBN: 978-81-949286-1-4

India as a federal union faces a litany of challenges but none as serious as one caused by mixing of religion with politics, a development that has contributed to the ballooning of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). So says former Home Secretary Madhav Godbole, who quit the government after the razing of the Babri Masjid. He also voices concern over other major issues confronting India. But one appears to get a feeling that he has chosen to go soft vis-a-vis the ruling party.

It is not that Godbole is uncritical of the BJP, which he faults for more reasons than one, including brazen partisanship on the issue of Governors. The Centre-state relations, he says rightly, are under severe strain, with even basic civilities and courtesies being shunned in interpersonal exchanges. So much so, he feels that confidence-building steps, generally used in the context of relations between countries, are needed to mend ties between the Union government and the states! After all, second generation economic reforms cannot be pushed beyond a point without the cooperation of the state governments.

Yet, he does not say who is responsible for this messy state of affairs, now that the BJP has been ruling India since 2014. The Congress certainly contributed to it but a cursory glance over the past seven years shows that needless aggression by BJP leaders at all levels has exasperated the crisis. BJP stalwarts, the Prime Minister included, routinely call their opponents names; if Arvind Kejriwal was dubbed a “terrorist”, then it was said that former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh “takes bath while wearing a coat”. The West Bengal Chief Minister was made fun of during campaign rallies. And these are only a handful of examples.

It is the fear of Hndu majoritarianism that led to India’s 1947 partition, Godbole says, and adds that its threat is now real. “Religious majoritarianism is likely to be a major fault line in the coming years but India seems to be least inclined to address the existential issue of separation of religion from politics.” Everyone knows the BJP and allied groups have pursued the idea of “Hindu Rashtra” like zealots; but Godbole avoids pinning effective responsibility beyond saying the BJP is wedded to the idea of a Hindu India. “The consequences of non-separation of religion from politics will have to be borne by the country.”

The concept of a strong Centre underlying the Constitution was understandable against the backdrop of the partition but now it needs to be interpreted flexibly, Godbole argues, underlining that only the BJP and the Congress favour a strong Centre. But he is against transferring all entries in the Concurrent List to the State List as suggested by some Chief Ministers. He is also not happy that states increasingly take a strong and often united anti-Centre stand.

He admits the policy of zero tolerance on corruption has largely remained on paper. He wants the institution of Governor to go as it is a vestige of India’s colonial past. In any case, most Governors are blatantly biased while dealing with the state governments. “The position of the Narendra Modi regime is no better (on this issue).” Axing the Governor’s post will remove a major irritant in Centre-state relations. He also advocates a constitutional division of the Supreme Court of nine full-time judges to deal exclusively with constitutional issues.

Godbole is opposed to unending fragmentation of existing states, particularly citing the example of Telangana whose separation from another Telugu-speaking state was justified on narrow considerations. In a country of such diversities, breaking up states will lead to India’s balkanization, he warns. But an exception has to be made for Uttar Pradesh because of its size and population.

The author is happy Article 370 of the Constitution has been abolished and insists that the Congress too wanted to drop it but did not have the political courage to do so. But he admits that alienation in Kashmir is far from over. The war for integration and normalcy in Kashmir is more difficult that the proxy war India has battled for decades. Godbole wants Jammu and the Kashmir Valley to be again given full statehood but Ladakh must remain a Union Territory.

Godbole is critical of the domiciliary requirements laid down by some states, which he says make a mockery of the rights given by Articles 15 and 19 of the Constitution. At a time when more and more Indians are opting for English language education, he points out that the Prime Minister’s national broadcasts are no longer in both Hindi and English but only in Hindi. This, he says, is clearly counterproductive and alienates large sections not at home in Hindi.

The Centre has suggested to the 15th Finance Commission that it should make the states bear a portion of the burden related to the defence of the country. It has also proposed a new levy to meet the increasing expenditure on internal security. Godbole feels these proposals are totally illogical.

As and when parliamentary constituencies are redrawn after the 2031 census, the southern states will cry foul as their representation in the Lok Sabha will fall majorly due to their lower rate of population growth while Hindi-speaking states will greatly benefit. This is unlikely to be acceptable to the south. “The entire basis for representation in (Parliament) will have to be examined fresh.”

Godbole avoid talking about the crippling effects of demonetization or the forced march of the poor out of major urban hubs following a sudden announcement of a nationwide lockdown in response to Covid-19. He, however, justified not giving full statehood to Delhi, calling it an “understandable reluctance of the Centre”. He merely mentions how the Centre has further eroded the powers of the Delhi government, despite a Supreme Court verdict, and says this is expected to be challenge in the apex court.

The author is clear that the increasingly propagated ‘One nation, One Everything’ concept will eventually destroy ‘One Nation’. What India needs is cooperative federalism. “There is very little awareness, leave aside understanding, of the gravity and the imminent dangers these fault lines pose for India’s federalism,” Godbole says. “It is becoming increasingly difficult to undertake any creative venture without fear of offending regional, linguistic and cultural sensibilities.”

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