The recent state elections have proven once again that the Indian people want a true federation. Above all other factors, they voted for local accountability. These results don't mean a rejection of a strong Centre, or a vote for or against Modi, or a lack of nationalistic feeling. They show people's natural desire to control their own affairs. Demand for autonomy over local matters has been a consistent source of conflict in India's states, including Kashmir. India's confused federalism of today has not only made these disputes worse; it has hurt governance on the ground. It's about time that India recognizes the real nature and benefits of federal principles, and works towards becoming a genuine federation.
A desire for local accountability is the only consistent message from India's state elections. Over and over again the Indian voter has shown wisdom, and a natural understanding that in the end it's all about local governance. People's top priority is to find local leaders who show some promise, and who can be taken to task. All other factors -- ideology, caste, religion, party labels, anti-incumbency, celebrity politicians, quality of campaign, central government control, feelings toward Modi -- are secondary.
Over and over again the Indian voter has shown wisdom, and a natural understanding that in the end it's all about local governance.
Where a state leader's accountability can be clearly established, people break all kinds of stereotypes. In Tamil Nadu and Bengal, they beat feelings of anti-incumbency and caste, to re-elect local leaders for their good performance. In Kerala, they, to a degree, embraced the BJP ideology they had resisted for decades to help remove a corrupt and factious government. In Assam, they acted on a communal message for the first time to solve a local problem with illegal immigration. And in Puducherry, they went against two waves -- anti-Congress nationally and pro-Jayalalithaa regionally -- to select a proven local team.
Previously, in Bihar and Delhi, the Indian voter was even clearer that what he wanted most was a local face to hold responsible. He surprised many a pundit who thought the Modi wave would overwhelm him. But it didn't. In Bihar, a state notorious for caste politics, people chose Nitish Kumar as CM (whose caste had only 4% of the vote). In Delhi, they gave a second chance to an inexperienced politician, Arvind Kejriwal, because he showed promise for ridding the state of rampant corruption.
[Indians] vote for strong leaders and national parties for the Centre, but local leaders and regional parties for their state governments.
All this doesn't mean the Indians don't want a strong Centre as well. That desire is equally natural. They want their nation to have a robust economy, a strong military, solid foreign relations, fair inter-state dealings, and corruption-free governance. There too, when they see a credible national face with promise, they vote for him and his party in droves. That was the case with Narendra Modi, and with all previous "strong" leaders -- Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi.
There are clear indications of this "strong Centre but accountable local governments" mindset of Indian voters. They vote for strong leaders and national parties for the Centre, but local leaders and regional parties for their state governments. This is why regional parties in India have continued to flourish. And this is why Modi's popularity at the Centre didn't automatically displace a Kejriwal, Nitish, Mamata or Jayalalithaa in the states.
Indians have also shown their dislike for the Centre interfering in their local matters. My columns have shown before how India's strong Centre is only worsening state-based violent movements. Political interference under the guise of President's Rule has been scoffed at from the days of Nehru. The recent such attempt by the Modi government in Uttarakhand was heavily chastised by India's judiciary.
[I]t goes against the basic principle of federalism to make state governments subservient to the Centre... or make state elections a referendum on the central government.
In fact, it goes against the basic principle of federalism to make state governments subservient to the Centre, or conversely, make state elections a referendum on the central government. True federalism makes both governments equally important. State governments are elected for governance on the ground, and the Centre for inter-state and foreign affairs and defence. Such division of labour makes common sense. Involving national politics in state elections serves no one. The local issues are ignored, while the national agenda suffers. And since national politicians come and go during the campaign, people have no one to hold accountable. This defeats the entire purpose of a federal structure.
True federalism requires clarity of responsibility, which makes each government better. India's current political scenario has compelled many, including Modi, to see the importance of good state governments. As Modi recently said, "What I am trying to do is to create a concept of competitive cooperative federalism so that there is some competition among the state governments in so far as their economic growth is concerned."
The problem is that Indians have never seen true federalism. The "cooperative federalism" the country touts is in name only. States cooperate with the Centre's demands, or else.
The problem is that Indians have never seen true federalism. The "cooperative federalism" the country touts is in name only. States cooperate with the Centre's demands, or else. Uncooperative state governments are penalized; their laws are not approved, they are not chosen for new programs or institutions, their legitimate funds are withheld, or worse, they are brought under President's Rule. Of the 57 instances of President's Rule studied by the Sarkaria Commission in the 1980s, "nearly 50% had resulted from central government wishes." In 2012 more than 20 Bills passed by opposition-held state governments remained stalled by the Centre. As Granville Austin, the chronicler of India's Constitution, wrote, "the state rabbits... never combined against the central wolf."
Too much autonomy to state governments, however, is a scary thought to some Indians. Kashmir is the first case they point to in this regard. L.K. Advani once commented that he saw "harm... if a state like J&K is allowed to have its own Constitution." And that he worried about India having "an ethnic federal structure."
Ironically, Kashmir was the state for which genuine federal principles were first considered, and ultimately applied. In the 1953 agreement that granted the state special status, Kashmir only gave control over three subjects: defence, external affairs and communications. This typically federal formula was first suggested for Kashmir before Independence by Maulana Azad , and then again in 1964 by Syed Mir Qasim to Nehru .
The truth is that for a diverse nation, India's pseudo-federalism is only making her regionalism stronger and more intolerant.
Ultimately a democracy can succeed only if keeps faith in the wisdom of people, and provides good reason for them to stay united. It's time for India to become such a democracy, and therefore a true federation.
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