Whether it was an over-reaction or a manifestation of her proclivity to high drama, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's vehement opposition to the presence of Indian army at some toll booths in her state harks back to the days of Congress hegemony when the states thought that the Centre was trying to infringe upon their autonomy.
Mamata was furious and refused to leave the state secretariat for 30 hours, in a curious bid to "protect" it from the army that was stationed at a nearby toll booth. According to the Army, it had followed procedures and even released some letters to show that appropriate authorities had been informed in advance. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar reiterated this point in Parliament saying that such exercises had been done in other states as well.
"We need the army, but the army comes only after the permission of the state. They have come without the permission in West Bengal, this is an attack on the federal structure."
However, for Mamata, it was a "clear violation of the Constitution" and a bid to "create a civil war like situation in the country". She charged that the Centre was indulging in "political vendetta" because she had led protests against demonetisation.
The Centre certainly has a point that it can conduct such exercises in the interest of national security with the consent of the state governments. In Parliament, Parrikar said "it is done in different states with the consent of officials". But, did Mamata give her consent? Looks like she didn't. If she did, why should she protest? Is it because of "political frustration" as Parrikar alleged? Or was he, as a Central minister, being dismissive of a Chief Minister?
All that the army has released are letters that show that it had informed the officials. It hasn't made public if the officials had written back, of if there were objections. If the procedure entails only one-way communication from the army informing the authorities concerned, then there is no question of consent. And in that case, Mamata is right - there was no consent and she, as a state Chief Minister, had reasons to be angry as Mayawati summed up in Parliament: "We need the army, but the army comes only after the permission of the state. They have come without the permission in West Bengal, this is an attack on the federal structure."
Releasing letters for information is not enough; the army has to release the entire communication to clear the air. Had Mamata's officials objected to posting the army at the tollbooth close to the secretariat? Did they have anything else to say? In a democracy, consent is not a one-way process.
In July 2012, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa had a similar problem and she was fierce and successful in her opposition. She found that nine Sri Lankan military officers were in training at the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington near Ooty.
In the wake of the killing of thousands of Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka in 2009, training officers from the island's army amounted to disrespect of the emotions of the people in the state and Jayalalithaa asked the Centre in no unequivocal terms to move them out. Their training was like "thrusting a spear in the hearts of the people of Tamil Nadu," she said.
Mamata's problem is no different: if she had objections to the toll-booth exercises of the army, even if they were partial, she should have been taken into confidence.
Two months later, she again found that two other Sri Lankan officers were under training near Chennai. This time, she was quite frontal when she said that the Centre's attitude was "reprehensible" and it had "scant regard for the views of her government and the sentiments of the people of Tamil Nadu." The officers were moved out this time as well.
Mamata's problem is no different: if she had objections to the toll-booth exercises of the army, even if they were partial, she should have been taken into confidence. It's not about the lack of respect for the army, but about infringement of the state's sense of autonomy.
Constitutionally, it may be a nebulous area, but over the years, particularly after the rise of regional parties, the states have come to regard their autonomy as something that's non-negotiable. With the rise of the BJP, there is a certain tendency of going back.
That indeed is the real issue behind all the fretting and fuming, whether it's Mamata, Arvind Kejriwal, Pinarayi Vijayan or Jayalalithaa.
Constitutionally, it may be a nebulous area, but over the years, particularly after the rise of regional parties, the states have come to regard their autonomy as something that's non-negotiable.
At the peak of the Congress supremacy, the non-Congress states were at the vanguard of an autonomy movement because they felt threatened by a strong Centre that appeared more and more unitary and hegemonic. Late 1970s and1980s saw its peak. Regional leaders such as Farooq Abdullah, M. Karunanidhi, Surjit Singh Barnala, Ram Krishna Hegde and N.T. Rama Rao stood together in their fight against the Centre. Conclaves on autonomy were held at Vijayawada, Delhi and Srinagar.
DMK's Karunanidhi was one of the strongest advocates of more powers for the state and had actively campaigned with his counterparts in other states. However, when the Congress started losing its grip on the states and more and more regional parties assumed power locally, increased autonomy became the norm.
Mamata's annoyance is likely to be shared by more, if the BJP gets hegemonic the way the Congress had done in its heydays. Unfortunately, with many states under its control and with such brutal majority in the Parliament, it's a likely scenario. Its excessive reliance on nationalism and glorification of the army are telltale signs of a regressive unitary behaviour that's not consistent with the new ways of democratic governance in the world. The best practice the world over is to decentralise and not to centralise.
Constitutionally, there may be adequate provisions to usurp the powers of the state - Articles 252, 254, 249, 352 etc give enough muscle to the Centre to gridlock a state - but, in an evolving world, a nation has to move forward and not backward, however extraordinary a situation is.
The solution should be political. If Mamata is angry, the response should be to assuage her and assure her because as Karunanidhi's DMK had noted in its 1971 manifesto, states are closer to people and they require more autonomy to serve people better. In 1978, Farooq Abdullah had even gone a step further, when he had said that "all the states should be given the sort of status enjoyed by Jammu & Kashmir under Article 370."
India may a see a resurgence of the hegemony of the 1970s and the 1980s.
It's not just Mamata who has a problem. Arvind Kejriwal is constantly complaining that the Centre is out to topple him while Pinarayi Vijayan says that it's trying to kill the cooperative banking sector in the state. Nitish Kumar and Akhilesh Yadav also have problems with the attempted overload.
India may a see a resurgence of the hegemony of the 1970s and the 1980s. As Sarkaria Commission, appointed by the government of India in 1983 to study the centre-state relations, noted, a "strong single monolithic party continued to hold power both in the union as well as the states for a long time had unexpected adverse effect on the healthy growth of union-state relations."
Is it making a comeback with the rise of the BJP?
In West Bengal, Mamata was not the first to assert her right over her territory. In 1978, Jyoti Basu had passed a resolution in the assembly and sent a memorandum to the centre. It may be more theatrical now, but the essence is the same.