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Mainstream, VOL L, No 24, June 2, 2012

Whither Indian Federalism? Leaders Versus Public Perception

Friday 8 June 2012, by S K Jain

The recent controversy around the NCTC (National Counter-Terrorism Centre) as being violative of the federal structure of our Consti-tution has sparked a debate on Indian federalism or popularly called Centre-State relations in India. Due to vigorous protests by the non-Congress-ruled States on the unilateral decision by the Centre to establish the NCTC, the Centre was forced to keep the decision on hold and call a meeting of Chief Ministers to discuss the concern of the States. It was a foregone conclusion that the NCTC cannot become a reality in the present form. One should perhaps understand that the prickly issue of our federalism will not be settled in the era of coalition politics in this country so early.

The possible second wave of federalism unfolding today has regional parties asserting more than ever before in the wake of the electoral reversals and declining popularity of the ruling Congress-led UPA II. However, the Opposition-ruled States with either the BJP or regional parties as the dominant force have put the Centre in the dock portraying it as the villain of Indian federalism and the evil of all the problems—whether it is security, economy or politics—the country is facing. But interestingly, various issues related to Indian federalism are not perceived the same way by the people of this country. A recent study, conducted by this writer and sponsored by the Indian Council of Social Science Research, on “Federal Political Culture In India: A Public Perception” suggests different perceptions of the people to the allegations of the non-Congress-ruled States.

Scholars studying India over the last 60 years have described the Indian political system as a federation without federalism and referred to its federalism as co-operative, competitive, parliamentary, legislative, administrative or quasi-federal etc. Whatever it may be, the federal element has been an underlying principal of the Indian polity. William S. Livingston, a veteran scholar on federalism, noted that ”the essence of federalism lies not in the institutional or constitutional structure but in the society itself”.

In the study of the ‘Public Perception on Federal Political Culture in India’, the opinions of the respondents on the key issues of Indian federalism were gathered. Some of the key findings reveal interesting facts about Indian federalism.

First, the respondents were asked what they mean by a federal government; 49 per cent said that by a federal government they mean division of power at two levels whereas 47 per cent indi-cated two levels of government, and four per cent confessed having no idea of the federal sys-tem. On being asked to specify which level of government needs more power, 40 per cent opted for the Central Government, 30 per cent for the local government and only 29 per cent indicated that the State governments need more power. In terms of reposing trust on a particular level of government, 49 per cent favoured the Central Government, 28 per cent State governments and 20 per cent local government (PRI). With regard to the government that provides more benefits, more than half (50.2 per cent) of the respondents contacted in the study area indicated that the Central Government has been able to provide more benefits, 32 per cent chose the State governments and only 15 per cent mentioned local governments.

In the survey, the respondents were also asked to view Centre-State relations in the context of coalition politics in the country, to which 65 per cent indicated that with a coalition government at the Centre, the States get more bargaining power, while 26 per cent opined that the States’ interests are less represented, and eight per cent said that it is nothing better than one-party rule. Taking the cue forward, it was asked to the respondents whether the Central Government’s interventions are required for development of the State through development programmes and policies; an overwhelming majority (87 per cent) indicated in its favour, 12 per cent declared not necessarily and only one per cent had no idea about it. On another controversial issue (which is a thorn in Centre-State relations) regarding Article 356 (President’s Rule), the respondents were asked whether it should be deleted from the Indian Constitution; only 42 per cent advocated for its deletion whereas 56 per cent rallied behind its continuation. As far as the role of the States in foreign policy-making is concerned, 55 per cent favoured it and 38 per cent didn’t and seven per cent had no clue about it.

However, on being asked whether a country should have a multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic composition or people of similar back-ground, the overwhelming majority of respondents (85 per cent) preferred diversity and only 14 per cent preferred the other way round. Again, on the question of federal leadership, the respondents were asked to indicate their opinion on two premises, whether a country should have a strong leader in the government to take decisions on what s/he thinks or a country should have a leader who takes decision by negotiations/bargaining with wider groups. To this, 79 per cent respondents preferred a leader taking decisions by bargaining/negotiations than a leader taking unitary decisions.

The major findings of the study suggest that though the Indian Constitution is federal in structure, still people trust the Centre more for their better welfare. The study makes it clear that people want to give more power to the Central Government than the State governments, feel that the Central Government’s programmes provided more benefits than those of the State governments, wants the Central Government’s intervention for better development of the State, and support the continuation of Article 356 (President’s Rule) in the interest of the people of the State.

However, on the issue of federalism, pluralism, diversity and tolerance, people under the study overwhelmingly supported these ideas as basic principles of the democratic, federal polity in India.

The present controversy around the NCTC, where the Centre may have buckled under pressure from the Chief Ministers of non-Congress ruled States to bring about substantial changes in the proposed law, might have been perceived as a victory of the champions of federalism in India; but if public opinion is solicited on this issue, the result may be different.

Dr S.K. Jain, an Associate Professor of Political Science, Shaheed Bhagat Singh (Evening) College, University of Delhi, was the Project Director of the ICSSR sponsored recent study “Federal Political Culture in India: A Public Perception”.

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